This year's Oscar-nominated shorts have surprising depth

by Joyce Lee | 2/15/19 2:00am

Last Saturday, I went to watch the Hopkins Center’s screening of the collection of Oscar-nominated live-action short films without a clue of what I was getting into. I hadn’t looked up any of the films before my viewing, and in my innocence, I assumed that the brevity of the shorts meant they would toe the line between light-hearted and meaningful. They would not be too dark or bleak, I assured myself, before the lights went dim and the title card for the first short appeared on the screen.

Rodrigo Sorogoyen’s “Madre” is a compact film that takes place within a single room with a handful of actors, two of whom are only featured as disembodied voices over the phone. The tension mounts as a young mother (Marta Nieto) receives an unexpected call from her son, which devolves from an airy check-in into a frantic conversation as the mother realizes her 6-year-old son is alone on an unknown beach. The use of a long tracking shot with minimal cuts creates the nervous, hovering tone of the entire short, and the two shots of a solitary beach that bookend the film become haunting as the viewer realizes the implications. There’s not quite enough substance to the plot for it to be completely fulfilling, but it’s an excellent work of nifty filmmaking and would be fantastic as the beginning of a harrowing feature-length film. 

A few minutes into Vincent Lambe’s “Detainment,” a single shot of a small toddler watching a pair of raucous young boys in the middle of Liverpool Shopping Center was a dead giveaway for the remaining contents of the short. Based on the real-life murder of a 2-year-old boy, James Bulger, by two 10-year-olds in 1993, the short centers around a series of police interviews with Robert Thompson (Leon Hughes) and Jon Venebles (Ely Solan), the boys who would become the youngest convicted murderers in British history. Interspersed with flashbacks of the abduction, the conversations peel away at the crime to reveal a grim look at the motivations behind it and how the perpetrators could have committed it at their age. The film has some of the best performances of the shorts; the director is able to coax compelling and truly gut-wrenching reactions from his young actors. Yet the film soon becomes plodding and unable to fully dive into the nature of the crime, indicating that this is a topic perhaps best left for a longer film. 

The only U.S.-based short included in this collection is Israeli director Guy Nattiv’s “Skin.” Following a family of skinheads, the film initially zeroes in on the affectionate relationship between a father (Jonathan Tucker) and his young son. The first half of the film provides harrowing jolts as these moments of affection are tied to acts of appalling violence and white-power bigotry, but the short reverses course with a curious second act that includes a transformation verging on the surreal. The ending provides a shocking conclusion that circles back to the beginning, but the abruptly strange nature of the second half of the short makes it feel like it takes place in an alternate reality. It depletes some of the impact of the film, but it remains a complex and intriguing look at the impact of racism on not only the present, but among children as well. 

Marianne Farley’s “Marguerite” is perhaps the most tender film out of this bunch. It’s about an old woman, the titular Marguerite (Béatrice Picard), and her caretaker (Sandrine Bisson) and the unexpected bond that emerges between them. The film is slow, tracing the beleaguered details of a solitary life that requires constant care and help. One might watch this short with bated breath, as I did, in anticipation of the hurt Marguerite would feel once her desire for companionship and a break from the isolation she feels is inevitably betrayed by her compassionate nurse. But the film doesn’t go there — it remains optimistic about the capacity for kindness and empathy, drawing on an organic bond that isn’t based so much on pity as it is on a kindred spirit.  

Jeremy Comte’s “Fauve” follows two mischievous boys whose day at a construction site goes horrifically wrong. Within a 16-minute narrative, the film manages to trace the arc of a friendship that loses its innocence with a single misstep, and how this mistake shapes into a perverse coming-of-age story. This short was my favorite of the collection in its ability to achieve so much despite the overall sparseness of the background, characters and plot. There are beautiful shots of a yawning cement landscape that isolates the two boys in what feels like a no-man’s land; what was once a playground for them becomes the scene of a nightmare. There is no help available for them, and the conclusion of the film centers on the teary face of one of the boys as he watches a wild fox who bounds away from him. It’s a haunting shot for all it implicates: in the midst of tragedy, children are often forced to grow up and understand for the first time that there is often no help available, that they are alone in a large and alien world. 

I can’t tell you that I walked out of the theater with a smile on my face, but this year’s crop of shorts were still engrossing and innovative pieces of filmmaking, all of them asking compelling questions about the pain of fighting against what seems inevitable. May the best short win.

The Hopkins Center will show a screening of “Oscar-Nominated Short Films: Live Action” at Loew Auditorium on Feb. 16 at 8 p.m.