Short Stuff: The 2018 Oscar-Nominated Live-Action Shorts
By Jay Seaver
Posted 02/25/19 10:20:33
Are you all right, Academy voters? I know that it's been a rough year for some, and it's got to feel like general misery is the prevailing situation in the world today even before you start considering that depicting pain is often seen as more difficult and righteous than depicting pleasure, but I think you may be taking it a bit far here. Yes, the five short films that are nominated for this year's award are all well-made, but watching them all in one sitting is a pretty rough experience, and I've got to wonder if maybe, just maybe, you're giving some of these movies a little extra credit for making you feel bad.
Take Rodrigo Sorogoyen's "Madre", for example. There's the germ of an interesting thriller here, as a woman (Marta Nieto) and her mother (Blanca Apilánez) exchange a few customary bits of back-and-forth as they make plans to get a meal while Marta's son Iván (Álvaro Balas) is on vacation with his father - at least, until Iván calls to say he's alone on the beach, not even sure whether they've crossed the border into France, father nowhere to be found. It's got a nifty performance by Marta Nieto, made especially interesting because Sorogoyen has her play this woman as too panicked to handle the situation even as she tries to help her son over the phone; it may be her first immediate crisis as a parent and she's not even capable of taking the advice of her own mother, whom Apilánez gives urgency but a cool head.
It works well enough, but Sorogoyen doesn't do a lot other than show Marta panicking. On top of the simple anxiety, it seems like there's a story to be told about the two women who have different ideas about parenting and maybe more than a little bit of friction, but there just isn't a lot of room here, and he doesn't get much out of the contrast between mother and grandmother. He opts to crank up the the tension by presenting the bulk of the film as one seemingly-unbroken shot inside Marta's apartment, and while that does emphasize just how quickly fear can set in and how quickly the actual situation can go bad, there's not a lot of personality to it - it could use some corners to be trapped in or a scale that establishes either privilege or struggle. It also kind of separates Iván's isolation on the empty beach with the initial view of it, and the showy last camera movement feels like urgency but doesn't actually say much.
A lot of short films feel like the filmmaker has started with a feature and tried to get to the heart of it, and that isn't a bad plan; you can certainly feel the fear that Sorogoyen is going for here. Sometimes, though, that heart needs arteries and a body through which to circulate that emotion, and that is often the case here.
Context can be funny like that. I first saw Jérémy Comte's "Fauve" back in July, as the short attached to the front of Summer of '84 at the Fantasia International Film Festival, and kind of despised it Seventeen minutes, this short is, of two young boys being obnoxious enough that I couldn't really feel upset when they started sinking into quicksand. I guess there's something there about them playing at making up rules and seeing how far they can push things until they find themselves in a situation that is truly implacable and in the control of forces utterly unconcerned with the rules they make up on the fly, but it's a tough sit to get to that. Mostly, I just thought of it as keeping me from seeing the feature I was actually looking forward to.
Show it as part of an anthology meant to highlight five of the best films of the year, and I maybe still don't actually like the thing, but but I'm maybe more alert for what got it put in such esteemed company. One does have to admire the work of young actor Felix Grenier, for instance, going from bratty to frightened to shell-shocked, or the way Comte radically changes the environment a couple of times without it feeling like a break. It's a nightmarish sense of the world shifting without warning that doesn't actually feel like it can be dismissed for being unreal. Not a fun watch, but quality filmmaking.
Marianne Farley's "Marguerite" also comes from Quebec, with the title character an elderly woman (Béatrice Picard) who needs some help getting by, mostly in the form of caretaker Rachel (Sandrine Bisson). It's a friendly enough relationship, although when Rachel receives a call and corrects Marguerite's assumption that the person on the other end is a boyfriend rather than a girlfriend, the older woman finds herself shaken - though not necessarily for the reasons one might assume.
Farley does some nice bits of apparent misdirection as she builds her movie, starting from how the film seems like it will initially be about the indignities of aging as much as anything else, emphasizing that aspect in early shots and then presenting an initial reaction that looks like horror, in part because it comes while Rachel is helping Marguerite put on a crucifix necklace. Soon, though, Farley and Béatrice Picard are showing this as just the first step in Marguerite's rapid re-evaluation of her own life and attitudes, and it is exquisitely sad, as she not only has to confront what may have been a missed opportunity decades ago but the fact that she in many ways lacks the vocabulary to express it.
By the end, it's clear that what seemed to be a distraction for a bit wasn't; Marguerite's age and frailty is important because it means that she's not going to have the opportunity to at least live the end of her life out as her true self in any meaningful way. That she will at least have Rachel's empathy is important, though, and it's also important to see that Marguerite's story isn't just a way to highlight how Rachel is fortunate. It's an impressive balance.
"Detainment" makes a bit of noise about how it is based upon actual transcripts for this true crime story, and that may be its biggest flaw - text at the end mentions that some material was not used in court, so therefore kept out of the film, and that decision can lead one to question the filmmakers' motives: Are they trying to dig into this crime, somehow understand what makes these two kids do something horrible or are they standing aloof, playing games in how they initially show one as more sympathetic only to reveal that, wait, maybe that's not the case?
It does that well enough; the two kids who kidnapped a younger boy left alone at a shopping center are played by two impressive young actors in Ely Solan and Leon Hughes, while filmmaker Vincent Lambe does an impressive job of calling to mind how interrogation scenes usually work in film and television to show just how children in the process upsets it, both by highlighting the power imbalances and also showing just how unprepared the system is for kids who do wrong. The anguish of the parents who simply cannot wrap their head around the situation is well-shown, especially as it's just as much resignation as rage.
Still, while watching this, I couldn't help but remember watching a Polish film called Playground a couple years back; if it wasn't based upon the same incident, it drew upon something awfully similar, but pulled in closer rather than accepting the distance. Even if that film didn't necessarily come up with satisfactory motivation, it wrestled with the question in a way that "Detainment" pushes to the corner.
Co-writer and director Guy Nattiv gets more directly at where monstrous kids come from in "Skin", which spends its first half following a kid whose dad (Jonathan Tucker) has a big ol' Nazi tattoo on his chest as they hang out with other write-trash friends, taking a turn when the boy (Jackson Robert Scott) finds his eye catching an action figure in a black man's hand at the supermarket, and the father takes this as a provocation.
Nattiv goes in for a couple different forms of horror here, the slow burn of real-life racism and a more creative bit of revenge, and it's perhaps a bit much for a twenty-minute movie. The opening half is played straight enough to work as no-nonsense commentary, but the back end asks a lot, to the point where it may be for the best that it goes for a fast ironic resolution once what's going on is clear. It's a kind of silly, wild idea that probably wouldn't stand up to a lot of scrutiny, but even so, it's also wild enough that one might want to see how the filmmakers played with it for more than a few seconds. Instead, they rush out, making sure that the maximum amount of cruelty and irony have been served.
This sort of cruelty, especially involving children, is enough of a theme to this year's nominees to become wearying, and make even those reluctant to call out the Emperor's New Clothes to wonder if the people who made these films the nominees are just trying to prove their sophistication - the darkness and cynicism goes from seeming sophisticated to bandwagon-jumping after the third or fourth endangered kid. It's perhaps fitting that the best of the films (and perhaps most likely to win), "Marguerite", has not only its own themes but some small kernel of optimism to it. It's not necessarily a bright film, but it practically shines like a beacon amid this repetitive darkness.