One of the annual pleasures of this pre-Oscar time of year is the opportunity to see the short films nominated for Academy Awards in their respective categories, which are ordinarily ignored except at festivals. For the next couple of weeks, you can check out this year’s nominees in this anthology being shown at art houses in major cities, which joins together the five live-action shorts and five animated ones contending for the prize.
Among the animated entries, the one that the most people will have seen is the inevitable Pixar production—Domee Shi’s “Bao,” which preceded “Incredibles 2” during its theatrical run. An unusual but touching fable of empty-nest syndrome, it’s well up to the studio’s high technical and emotional standards.
A different portrait of dysfunctional family life is conveyed in Trevor Jimenez’s “Weekends,” in which a young boy must deal with the separation of his parents, the father who takes him for rambunctious weekends and the more responsible, but frazzled mother who’s the primary custodian. The entrance of others into the lives of each causes the lad considerable distress, expressed in surrealistic visuals. More positive, though not without its sad moments, is Andrew Chesworth and Bobby Pontillas’ “One Small Step,” about a girl who dreams of becoming an astronaut and her hardworking, supportive father.
As a change of pace there’s “Animal Behavior,” a jokey tale of a canine therapist whose weekly group session (with, among other creatures, a cat, a pig, a slug, and a praying mantis) is invaded by a new member, a huge ape. It’s like an episode of the old Bob Newhart show with off-kilter critters replacing Bob’s wacky patients.
Finally there’s Louise Bagnall’s heartfelt “Late Afternoon,” in which the memories of an elderly woman afflicted with Alzheimer’s are roused as her daughter packs up her belongings. A wistful portrait of a life presented in waves of color and snatches of dialogue, it’s a moving evocation of approaching senility marked by continuing love.
Most of the five live-action shorts, oddly enough, focus on children in danger. The most compelling, and controversial, is certainly Vincent Lambe’s “Detainment,” an impressionistic reenactment of the murder of two-year old James Bulgar by two ten-year olds, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, in Merseyside, England in 1993. Based largely on transcripts of the boys’ interrogations by the police, it boasts stunning performances by Ely Solan and Leon Hughes as Venables and Thompson, and is powerful, though genuinely disturbing in its portrait of incomprehensible cruelty perpetrated by “innocents.”
As unnerving in its way is Jeremy Comte’s “Fauve,” in which two reckless kids engage in horseplay that winds up in an abandoned quarry, where tragedy strikes. The faun metaphor is the weakest element in an otherwise very strong piece, with two more excellent performances by youngsters, Félix Grenier and Alexandre Perreault.
The child is an off-screen voice in Rodrigo Sorogoyen’s “Madre,” in which Marta (Marta Nieto), visiting with her mother, receives a call from her six-year old son Iván, who’s on a holiday with his father. The kid explains that he’s alone on a beach somewhere, and that his dad has been away for a long time. Marta grows increasingly frantic to locate the boy, until something happens that might make the situation even worse. As pure filmmaking exercise the short works, but it also leaves one unsatisfied.
A boy is being raised by a neo-Nazi father and his unkempt wife in “Skin,” Guy Nattiv’s tale of the consequences of racial bigotry. Though well-meant, the story of young Troy (Jackson Robert Scott, also seen in the feature “The Prodigy”), who’s being introduced to hatred and violence by his white supremacist father Jackson (Jonathan Tucker), veers into vaguely sci-fi territory when the comrades of a black man Jackson and his thuggish friends have beaten up take their revenge in a fashion reminiscent of “Black Like Me” (or even “Finian’s Rainbow”!), with results that offer a reversal of the 1987 telefilm “Into the Homeland.” Though grittily realistic in mood and proficiently acted, “Skin” feels like a rather heavy-handed “Twilight Zone” episode.
Of the live-action shorts, the most hopeful is certainly Marianne Farley’s “Maguerite,” in which an elderly woman (Béatrice Picard) learns that her physical therapist (Sandrine Bisson) is lesbian—a revelation that takes her back to memories of her own youth. It makes a nice counterpart to “Late Afternoon.”
Like all anthologies, this one is a mixed bag, and one, in the live-action films, is decidedly more dour than most of its predecessors in this series. But though it might leave you more depressed that uplifted, it’s well worth seeing for the artistic prowess it showcases.