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Short Stuff: The 2015 Oscar-Nominated Live Action Shorts
by Jay Seaver

Around this time of year, you'll hear from plenty of people wearing their apathy for the Oscars and other award ceremonies as a badge of honor, focusing on what they appear to do (anointing one thing as the objective best in a given category despite not appearing to even consider less-mainstream but worthy choices) rather than how they focus attention on quality work. One of the best ways it does that is the theatrical (and, now, digital) release of a feature-length presentation of the five nominees for best live-action short film. This year's group is particularly strong, so even if you don't much care about awards, there's no bad reason to take in fine storytelling that might otherwise escape your notice.

The first presented, "Ave Maria", is the only comedy of the group, and it's one with a little bite. In it, an Israeli family traveling through the West Bank has their car break down, although not quite in the middle of nowhere - they actually crash into a statue of the Virgin Mary outside a small Catholic convent. Getting them on their way this Friday evening will be tricky, though - the nuns have taken a vow of silence and the husband, at least, is Orthodox enough not to do any work (or use machinery that causes others to work, like a telephone) on the Sabbath. And judging from how the group, especially the wife and her mother-in-law, bicker, having them hang around for a day isn't the best option even if the sisters were inclined to host guests.

On the surface, this is just a funny little story; it's a minor problem that challenges the characters in ways that are never truly dangerous and gives them room to make things worse by not being as clever as they perhaps should. Huda Al Imam is especially enjoyable as the novice who between wanting to help, not being a disciplined as the more experienced nuns, and actually having some unexpected skills, gets to be active and very likable in nearly every scene, but everybody has a chance to be funny, and the effort of the nuns to remain silent leads to some entertaining physical bits.

The really clever thing, though, is that without much mocking the idea of faith, writer/director Basil Khalil sets things up so that nearly every impediment in the story comes from adhering to some form of demonstrative ritual that hinders one's ability to communicate and thus actually be a good neighbor. As the characters attempt absurd solutions to work around self-imposed restraints which would cause disaster if everybody practiced them, it's easy to see the metaphor for larger issues without the filmmakers ever speaking down to the audience. It's gentle but effective satire, even if "gentle" isn't the usual way that style of comedy goes.

The second nominee in the presentation, "Friend", also starts out with a car stopping unexpectedly, in this case for a bicycle abandoned in the middle of the road; the passenger (Kushtrim Sheremeti) stands it up and rides into the next town, saying he'll meet his friend later. This triggers a memory from about twenty years early, during the civil war in Kosovo, when Albanian boy Oki (Andi Bajgora) had just bought a new bike, and his best friend Petrit (Lum Veseli) convinces him to help sell things to the Serbian soldiers - a dangerous gambit.

Most people watching this short likely can't fathom what it's like to grow up in a war zone, and between writer/director Jamie Donoughue and young actors Lum Veseli and Andi Bajgora, we see an impressive balance of kids being kids and them knowing that they're potentially facing more trouble than their parents being upset. Donoughue does an impressive job of making sure that Petrit & Oki don't seem to be constantly wallowing in misery while still making sure that there is a constant reminder that this is worse than a bad neighborhood.

The framing sequence is a bit unnecessary (it reminds me of the time a friend arrived five minutes into Black Book and figured it must have been more tense for him than those of us who knew someone survived). It plays into just how utterly arbitrary war can be and how casually people can do their worst in those situations, hitting the right note without overselling it.

There was a great entry in this category a couple of years ago, "Just Before Losing Everything", presented itself as a near-real-time look at a woman escaping an abusive relationship, and it's one of the most concentrated doses of tension one can see. In "Everything Will Be Okay", filmmaker Patrick Vollrath flips the script, starting with divorced father Michae Baumgartner (Simon Schwarz) picking up his daughter Lea (Julia Pointner) for his monthly weekend. He indulges her, buying a giant Lego set in part because Lea says her mother would never do so, but an unusual stop hints at what is really going on.

Vollrath doesn't spring anything on the audience unexpectedly; Michael's early twitchiness indicates that something is up. Instead, he presents Michael's attempts to spirit his daughter away in a methodical manner, revealing details of just how someone might go about doing this without stopping for visible outrage or making how it could fail at any time enough to gain sympathy. It's an excitingly inverted tension, with every moment containing the potential for desired failure and ever bit of the protagonist's success creating more unease rather than less.

Simon Schwarz is terrific as Michael; if asked about his character and performance, he'd probably give the familiar but nevertheless truthful answer that everybody is the hero of their own story, and he does play Michael as overwhelmed, fighting a system that seems unjustly set against him. He's not heroic, though; not only doesn't Vollrath have him verbalize any particular reason why he has been treated unfairly, but there's just enough anger and impatience in some of his interactions with Lea to make sure we see this is about hurt pride as much as what he feels are his daughter's best interests. Julia Pointner, meanwhile, is impressively on-note as Lea, capturing the vagueness of the girl's suspicions: What's going on is something she has not been warned about and can't really conceive of, and it's a challenge for her to not trust her father. On top of that, she's a kid, and Pointner does very well not to lose that she gets tired and cranky while playing the confusion, and vice versa. They both step up their game at the climax, as does Vollrath, not stumbling at all when the need for an ending dictates a shift in tone.

There's a conscious cruelty to how "Stutterer" begins, depicting Greenwood, a man with an extremely debilitating speech impediment (Matthew Needham), on the phone to his internet service provider, pushing what is kind of a miserable experience for anyone into a mortifying bit of torture. It's not just that the lady on the other end of the line treats him like he's deliberately being difficult until his father (Eric Richard) lends a hand, it's that for someone in his position, online communication is critical. He's been messaging a girl for six months, for instance, and he's not sure what to do when Ellie (Chloe Pirrie) mentions that she'll actually be in London next week.

Filmmaker Benjamin Cleary tips his hand a bit when he has Ellie mention online that she wouldn't use text-speak because she loves language so much; as much as the call with customer service is awful, Greenwood's environment constantly reinforces how much he likes words and communication, making his living as a typographer and filling every corner with books. Many films of this type will find a way to present this sort of disorder as having some sort of hidden benefit, but Cleary seldom seems to be going there; this hurts, and by playing up just how much Greenwood in particular finds himself barred from something important to him, it keeps the audience from suggesting ways to make the best of it.

That makes for a somewhat gloomy movie, but it also gives the cast a reason to use its entire skillset. Needham is crucial and terrific as Greenwood; a stutter this severe means that he can't use it the same way as an accent or tone of voice, but we can see his frustration, especially compared to how capable he seems in scenes where speech doesn't enter into it. The ones with Eric Richard as his father are brief but kind of beautiful; the frequent trope of a father and son not saying much take on an added poignance here, especially since Richard makes the father look drained by other things in his life, allowing them to support each other without much need for words. And while Chloe Pirrie only appears on-screen as something other than a photographic avatar for a few moments, they change everything, letting Cleary put booster rockets on the tonal swing the audience was hoping for and make it seem honest and earned.

In some ways, Henry Hughes's "Day One" seems more obviously primed for an uplifiting-despite-everything ending, putting its main character Feda (Layla Alizada) into a combat zone as a translator and mentioning that despite growing up in America, she had a very traditional life beforehand and that this was her first job of any kind. It is going to be a hell of a first day, as she's barely got her uniform on before being called to help translate as the unit she is attached to looks to capture a bomb-maker (Alain Washnevsky), only to find his very pregnant wife Naheed (Alexia Pearl) having complications.

It's a thrillingly tense little movie that picks up more toward the end, to the point where one might forget something potentially traumatic that happened halfway through its 25 minutes because after what comes later, it was arguably just setting a baseline for how messed up war can be. In some ways, that's a canny bit of work on Hughes's part - the film's last act will present circumstances that will probably make even the most jaded in the audience cringe, and that's sort of the point, putting the audience in the position of this very sheltered woman even if they've seen some stuff at the theater.

Layla Alizada is great; she projects a great nervousness that is tempered somewhat by the fact that she must have had some training and came in knowing some of what she was getting into. She quickly develops a nice rapport with Bill Zasadil as the soldier she works most closely with, and the later scenes with Alexia Pearl and Navid Negahban are suitably tense. Indeed, it's the sort of thing where one relaxes one's grip on the armrest as the credits roll, not quite realizing how hard a grip it was encouraging.

Indeed, after that one ended, one of my fellow attendees turned to say that this was a pretty great collection, and I saw no reason to disagree or temper that assessment. These shorts are individually impressive, and the overriding themes of difficulty in communication and surviving conflicts not of one's own making make them hang together as a group well. It's as good an evening watching movies as you'll find right now, and you've got to admit that this makes the Oscars good for something.


link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=3897
originally posted: 02/14/16 16:55:17
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