Short Stuff: The 2019 Oscar-Nominated Live-Action Shorts
By Jay Seaver
Posted 02/07/20 09:40:39
Though I'll be watching the Oscars on Sunday with no small amount of interest in who receives awards, I genuinely do believe that the most important part of awards season is the period between nominations being announced and the actual ceremony; it's a decently-curated list of good films and a manageable bit of pressure to see and discuss them now. For the live-action shorts, it's even more; while the animated and documentary shorts have some outlets to get seen, if not as many as features, these films' best chances to find an audience are undeniably in the blocks that play theaters in the lead-up to the ceremonies.
It shouldn't be that way; there's often greatness in these films and a streaming service that could get people to watch one of these rather than just dipping into The Office again could do a world of good, but the algorithms are fickle and would need to be trained to serve up these small, generally independent productions. Maybe I'll try and start training Prime to offer them to me this spring by finding what I can and watching a bunch; in the meantime, this showcase is their biggest stage.
The first one included in this year's batch is "A Sister", written and directed by Delphine Girad, which opens with a nervous woman (Selma Alaoui) and an agitated man (Guillaume Duhesme) in a car, driving down a dark road. She says she needs to call her sister Lucie, who is looking after the kids, and anybody watching can see that she's choosing her words carefully to avoid upsetting the driver. After a minute, it rewinds to also show the woman on the other end of the call (Veerle Baetens), which paints a much different picture.
Girad takes these simple building blocks and creates a tight little thriller, a game of cat-and-mouse that isn't exactly low-stakes to the people involved but which is pointedly limited in space and where specific threats are not entirely laid out. In telling this story this way, she is applying genre trappings to something more urgently real, pointing out that for many women, a lot of everyday life can be as nail-biting as any suspense picture but much less fun, with Alaoui and Baetens making sure that even moments that can play as cool or collected come off as ill-conceived bravado or with frustration and resignation. These women know this bad situation, but that doesn't make handling it easier or less dangerous
Girad gets a lot out of simple environments, and the cinematography by Juliette Van Dormael is so aggressively not showy that it sometimes can seem frustrating, as there's rarely any extra light, so it's fairly dark inside the car - and darker still in flashbacks to earlier in the evening - while the lights are down back in the city as well, just dim enough to make "Lulu" seem clearly defined but anonymous. Depending on presentation, viewers may sometimes feel themselves squinting to catch what is going on, though it certainly captures how much situations like this happen outside of view.
We move from Belgium to Tunisia for "Brotherhood", which begins with a shepherd (Mohamed Grayaâ) and his sons putting down a goat that has been felled by a wolf, something older son Chaker (Chaker Mechergui) is having a hard time mustering the stomach to do. Chaker is, in fact, his second-oldest son, with Malek (Malek Mechergui) just returning from Syria with new wife Reem (Jasmine Lazid) in tow, hidden behind a burqa and pregnant. Though mother Salha (Salha Nasraoui) is forgiving, the circumstances of Malek's return sit as poorly with Mohamed as his reasons for leaving.
The audience learns those in time; writer/director Meryam Joobeur has a knack for letting important pieces of information reveal themselves without the film stopping for a character to shout them and then slowing down enough so that the viewer has a few moments to chew on them without much distraction. That one can feel her doing this is interesting because one can often sense that Mohamed is not reconsidering things in that way, at least not until he's finally got every last piece. Joobeur nevertheless lets the idea of how that mindset can be dangerous as well as unkind simmer, even though the very first scene highlights a decisiveness that expects a lot out of his family.
It's a nice little performance, meshing well with that of Salha Nasraoui, giving this married couple a history that hasn't soured despite the amount of wear they both display; they get how to argue passionately enough that one feels how strongly the pair disagree and a sense of the line that both know not to approach and how bad it would be to cross it. Jasmin Lazid does very nice work even when almost completely hidden behind black cloth, and while Joobeur wanting to keep some cards close limits what Malek Mechergui can do a bit, the scenes between him and what I presume (from the shared last name) are his real-life brothers are terrific, underlining the sense of familial bonds even when the older characters are speaking about something less purely emotional but more easily defined.
"The Neighbor's Window" is a sitcom plot that someone decided to take seriously, starting with thirty-ish Alli (Maria Dizzia) and Jacob (Greg Keller), parents of rambunctious twins with another baby on the way, noticing that the attractive new neighbors across the way haven't bothered to put up drapes or blinds or the like before getting it on in their new apartment. They never really get around to it, and over the next year or so, the older couple never really stops looking, even if it prompts both a little jealousy and reminders that they aren't exactly those sort of free-spirited 22-year-olds any more.
Filmmaker Marshall Curry and his cast work to elevate the story over a Friends subplot, with discussions of the meaning of why Alli and Jacob watch coming early rather than in an epilogue and a more dramatic twist coming somewhere around the midway point, but it the story doesn't quite make the jump from coming across an experiment in playing a comic trope straight to playing like the anecdote that gets simplified. The film also feels like the characters' lives are built around the times they're looking out the window with references to the rest of their existence not quite organic. Relatedly, it's also got one of those endings where the bad fortune that befalls others transparently exists solely so that the protagonists can learn from it
Still, that last scene has co-star Juliana Canfield doing her level best to turn the perspective around, even if the material just doesn't seem to be there. Keller and especially Dizzia do well with what they're given as well, making asides about their kids being a handful pull their weight in keeping things moving. And if the bulk of the film often feels by-the-numbers, the sequence where Alli is unable to look away at the moment when it would be most mortifying to have the neighbors see her watching is likely enough to get the entire short nominated on its own.
Bryan Buckley's "Saria" opens with a great sequence of its own, with a sizeable insect zipping across the floor, and in a way it's both the woman whose heavy footsteps it dodges - vermin that endangers the orphans under her care and also the kids, small and easily endangered even if they are sometimes quick-witted enough to skitter out of the way. Saria (Estefanía Tellez) certainly is; the pre-teen may not yet understand big sister Ximena (Gabriela Ramírez) being interested in boys, but she's brave and quick-witted, with a plan to escape this place and flee to America, even if it means walking 2,500 km from Guatemala. And when Ms. López (Imelda Castro) subjects her to horrific punishment for mouthing off in class, that only makes her more determined.
Based on a true story and performed in large part by children who were present during the events of 17 March 2017, "Saria" appropriates its namesake's bluntness, forsaking any euphemisms for how many of the children in this "safe home" are regularly being raped and otherwise abused and instead having the girls talk frankly about it and scream the fact in protest as they flee. Buckley infuses the film with hot rage from beginning to end, making sure to leave very little room for any sort of idealized innocence or ideas that this was an avoidable tragedy where people were trying their hardest. Even if it was, his insistence on maintaining Saria's point of view until moments before the end means that the audience will see very little room for forgiveness, and will have to connect their own dots of just what awaits a group of dozens of Latino kids at the American border. It's harsh, but an earned harshness, careful not to exaggerate in either direction, not sanitizing the situation or making the kids too wise.
The young cast is very good for being either non-actors or on some of their first roles, with Tellez and Ramirez especially good. Buckley handles the more active parts of the film nicely as well, making for a fine climax even if the epilogue is a bit curt.
After that heavy true story, it's fun to finish up with "Nefta Football Club", a fun shaggy-dog story where a goat wearing headphones is lost in Algeria and found by a pair of brothers across the border in Tunisia - who also find the many packages of white powder in its saddlebags, which older brother Mohamed (Eltayef Dhaoui) figures he can sell, although naive, football-loving kid brother Abdallah (Mohamed Ali Ayari) has another idea.
Yves Piat's film is endearingly odd, the sort of thing you could easily see being the first act of a Coen Brothers-style caper that gets weirder and more twisted as it goes along, so it's actually somewhat impressive that he knows where to stop, establishing just enough to make the eccentric premise work but also limiting things to the point where it can come in for a smooth landing after 17 minutes. Piat is good at packing everything he needs into that space - set up something that will pay into the climax as local color early, make the smugglers' differing interests part of the plot, get from one thing that needs to happen to the next with snappy jokes that nevertheless don't make the kids sound like miniature adults, that sort of thing.
On top of that, the film's got two separate entertaining odd couples, with Lyès Salem and Hichem Mesbah having a bit of a Laurel & Hardy thing going on the one hand and Eltayef Dhaoui & Mohamed Ali Ayari having great sibling rapport on the other. Ayari is especially fun, a ball of kid-brother energy who is able to sell that Abdallah is a bright kid while also having the sort of wide-eyed innocence that can throw a major wrench into his brother's plans.
"Nefta Football Club" and "A Sister" are my favorites from the package, although I wouldn't bet against the rawness of "Saria" in terms of who actually receives the award. Mostly, I just want it to be easier to quickly find a good short or three two watch when I've got fifteen minutes or a half hour to fill.