Monday, February 5, 2018

OSCAR’S 2018 LIVE ACTION SHORTS TACKLE ISSUES OF THE CLOSED MIND

Tarra Riggs in DEKALB ELEMENTARY
There is one recurring theme running through the five Academy Award nominees this year for Best Live Action Short Film - closed minds. And in each of the five superb shorts competing for Oscar gold, a brain that is unreceptive to new thoughts will determine the fate of their stories. One has a happy ending, the other four…not so much. And just try and get any of them out of your head.

DEKALB ELEMENTARY

All five shorts are strong contenders, but this one will pin you to your seat from its very first seconds. On a random day at DEKALB ELEMENTARY in Atlanta, GA, a downtrodden young man named Steve (Bo Mitchell) shambles into the grade school office. No one pays much attention to him, especially not Cassandra (Tarra Riggs), the office attendant who’s already busy with work. But then he pulls out an AK-47 and suddenly he’s got her full attention, as well as ours. For the next 19 minutes of this 20-minute short, filmmaker Reed Van Dyk creates unbearable tension and dread as the humble office worker attempts to talk the disturbed loner out of using his weapon.


The tight, confined space that these two people occupy in that tiny office turns into a claustrophobic nightmare. Steve keeps pacing about, mumbling to himself, and threatening to shoot at the police. Meanwhile, Cassandra must rise to the occasion and control what she can. Juggling instructions to the school to evacuate and serving as a conduit between the restless gunman and the circling police, the woman turns into a calm, steady, and caring hero right before our eyes. Can she persuade Steve that his options don't have to end in bloodshed? Both actors do incredible work here, but it is Riggs who has the star-making turn, and she runs with it.

DEKALB ELEMENTARY will leave you wiped out by the end. And I think the Academy will likely award it the top prize. Perhaps if members of the United States Congress saw this short, they’d finally get around to doing something about all the mass shootings occurring in the nation. The film is that powerful and persuasive.


THE SILENT CHILD

If any film usurps DEKALB ELEMENTARY, it will likely be THE SILENT CHILD. Director Chris Overton’s 20-minute short from the UK tells the story of a social worker and her attempts to reach out to a young deaf girl whose family all but ignores her. Joanne (Rachel Shenton) is hired to help 4-year-old Libby (Maisie Sly) learn to communicate better and become more sociable, especially since she’s a year out from school and the local elementary isn’t equipped to handle such a “special needs” child. Libby has been getting by reading lips of those in her family, but none of them give the little girl much attention. The two teens are preoccupied with their own minutiae, and Libby’s middle-aged parents act as if she’s an irritating pet.


Mom Sue (Rachel Fielding) is especially brittle, and all but considers Libby hopeless. The optimistic Joanne, however, sees incredible potential. She correctly assesses that the girl is smarter than the family gives her credit for, and soon she’s not only teaching the tyke sign language, but she’s bonding with her in a way that no family member cares to even try. Joanne makes Herculean strides with Libby, yet Sue’s closed mind threatens to thwart all of their forward momenta. 

Written by star Shenton, THE SILENT CHILD is a nuanced examination of the disabled, family dynamics, and that stiff British upper lip that so often inhibits progress. Beautifully shot and wondrously acted, this short will warm your heart and break it too. It's so richly felt and exquisitely produced, you'll want more of it. THE SILENT CHILD deserves to be adapted as a feature-length film and perhaps all the attention it's getting will lead to just such a thing.


WATU WOTE: ALL OF US

Trying to open up minds when it comes to religion may be the most laborious task of all in this divided and cynical world. How many wars and how much blood has been spilled over disagreements on God, in just the last 25 years? WATU WOTE: ALL OF US examines one of the greatest divides, that between Christians and Muslims. It is a tense and moving film, playing almost like a combination of the best of DEKALB ELEMENTARY and THE SILENT CHILD. 

Directed by Katja Benrath, and written by Julia Drache, Alexander Ikawah and Brian Munene, this 22-minute co-production of Germany and Kenya, relates the story of a young Christian woman named Jua. Played by the wonderfully expressive Adelyne Wairimi, Jua is traveling by bus across Kenya to visit her family. On the bus, she finds herself sitting next to a Muslim woman (Abdiwali Farrah) and her baby, and Jua regards them with disdain. Muslims killed Jua’s husband and child, so she finds no reason to open her mind.
As the bus treks over the desert, Jua is given many opportunities to connect with her fellow travelers, but because they’re Muslim, she resists their friendliness. A Muslim teacher (Barkhad Abdirahman) tries to establish a dialogue with her, but the stubborn Jua rejects his efforts. Meanwhile, the threat of Muslim terrorists with guns dot their path the whole way, and inevitably, the bus is stopped. What happens to Jua at that point is utterly incredible, rendered all the more so by the fact that this is a true story.


MY NEPHEW EMMETT

Many know the story of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old African-American who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955 after a white woman named Carolyn Bryant accused him of propositioning her. Till was brutally snatched from his uncle's home by Bryant’s husband and a half-brother in the middle of the night. They beat the youth, shot him in the head, and threw his body into the Tallahatchie River. Till posthumously became an icon of the Civil Rights Movement, and the acquittal of his murderers finally woke up most of the nation to the atrocities taking place in the South.

This short, written and directed by Kevin Wilson, Jr., comes at the story from the angle of Till’s stoic uncle, Mose Wright (L.B. Williams). His nephew (Joshua Wright) is staying with him for the summer and Wright worries about the overly confident and guileless teen. The old man knows full well that Emmett's attributes are not considered assets for a black man to have in Mississippi, and thus, worries for his safety. Then Wright hears that his nephew was seen chatting with Bryant at a local shop in town and frets that doom may be on the horizon. Wilson does a masterful job of showcasing the sense of dread that infiltrates the uncle's world as it hinders his bath time, his sleep, and even his conversations with his stalwart wife Elizabeth (Jasmine Guy).


The second half of this 20-minute short deals with the horrifying break-in at Wright’s home when Emmett is held at gunpoint and forced to turn over his nephew. It’s harrowing, heartbreaking, and utterly infuriating, rendered all the more so by the fact that such treachery still exists today, even in the highest corridors of American power.

If there is any criticism to be made of this impeccably produced and sublimely acted drama, it is that the Till story deserves far more time onscreen. The cowardly court verdict that released his killers, the bravery of his mother who chose to display her son’s corpse in an open casket, the 60-plus years it took for Bryant to tell the truth -   these are all elements of the story demanding to be featured and given their due. Hopefully, Wilson can find the money to do the full Till story as a miniseries ensuring it the proper scope and length.


THE ELEVEN O’CLOCK

This 13-minute short from Australia is the sole comedy in this year’s finals, and what a hilarious piece it is. Directed by Derin Seale and written by Josh Lawsen, it concerns the delusional patient of a psychiatrist who believes that he is actually the psychiatrist. As the two encounter each other in the office for an 11 o’clock appointment, they each try to treat the other while defending their own position as the doctor in the room. Since this is near farce, their meeting quickly spirals out of control as both doctor and patient, whichever is which, lose their cool.

Lawsen wrote himself a wicked part as Terry Philips, the man who occupies the office as the short starts. Then, Nathan Klein (Damon Herriman) shows up late, and we're not sure he is who he says he is. Of course, it helps that the psychiatrist’s regular secretary is out sick so the proper doc cannot be identified. And the ditzy temp Daisy (Eliza Logan) adds no help whatsoever in the search for clarity. 

Of course, all of this could be solved if one checked whose name is contained on the two framed diplomas hanging on the wall, but that would ruin the hilarious mischief. Arguably though, the production design should’ve removed the props to avoid the issue altogether.

The best part of the short is the fractured wordplay of the two dignified and pigheaded men as they argue, misinterpret what the other is saying, and stand pompously on ceremony. It’s patter worthy of Abbott and Costello, with a “Who’s on First” quality to their bickering. You might see the ending coming a mile away, but it’s still a stitch. 

It would be great if THE ELEVEN O'CLOCK were shown smack dab in the middle of the Live Action Shorts' theatrical screenings to give audiences a break from the heavy drama of the other four. Still, it wouldn't be much of a breather as THE ELEVEN O’CLOCK will have you gasping for air as you guffaw with laughter.

(The Oscar Shorts open at the Landmark Theater in Chicago on Friday, February 9th, and at multiple screens across the nation.) 

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