I love the Academy Award short programs. You get to see a great range of films by up-and-coming talents, all with one-word titles. Okay, just joking about that last part. It just so happens that this year all the nominees are monophrastic.
I’ve been lucky enough to get an early look at all the films. My thoughts are below, along with my predictions for Academy Awards voting. But don’t take my word for it.
The shorts.tv program of all these films opens today, Feb. 6, in New York and Feb. 8 nationwide. For more information on where you can screen them, go here.
“Detainment” (30 min)
This is a British film, based on a true story and actual police transcripts. The case is an investigation of two 10-year-old boys who abducted an even younger boy. It’s grim subject matter, but the kid acting isn’t bad and the editing style is slick: a sort of collage of flashbulb memory moments. The main element is the interrogations of each boy and his parents. It gets repetitive after a bit, and when new details are added, it only gets more grim. Kudos to the filmmakers for sitting with the unfathomable questions that this case brings up, but man is this one grim.
“Fauve” (17 min)
This is also a film about two unsupervised boys that ventures into dark territory. After some aimless wondering, the boys find themselves at construction or mining site stuck in quicksand. I have to say, this is the most convincing and suspenseful quicksand scene I’ve seen on film.
It is a French language Canadian production, and the title “Fauve” has a particular meaning in French: wild and uninhibited. It also has the association with bright, imaginative colors, which plays a symbolic role in the film. I can’t help viewing this one through the lens of American politics, although the metaphorical situations that quicksand might stand in for are numberless.
“Marguerite” (20 min)
Marguerite is a spoon-collecting, pre-diabetic older woman who receives daily visits from a nurse, Rachel. When she learns Rachel is in a same-sex relationship, it kindles memories of her youth and a woman she once loved herself. This is a slow and beautifully-photographed story that builds toward a moment of great tenderness.
It’s another film out of Quebec, entirely in French, and makes me yearn for some of that high-quality Canadian healthcare. Because of the slow pace and the subject matter, the film will probably divide audiences. Stick with it. I have to admit, I was pretty sour on this one for most of the runtime but the performances of the actors in the final scene broke down my resistance and gave me some feels.
“Madre” (18 min)
As you may have guessed, “Madre” is a Spanish-language film. It continues the theme of children in peril. About to go out with friends, a mom gets a call from her 6-year-old son. He’s supposed to be with his father, her ex, on holiday but he’s been abandoned on a beach. What beach, where? The tension escalates beautifully in a 15-minute single take. While there are some other wrinkles beyond that, I will say that the story doesn’t fully resolve. This feels like the opening reel of a taut thriller.
“Skin” (21 min)
“Skin” is a none-too-subtle story about the cycle of racism. A young boy watches his father start a fight with a black man and then again becomes a witness to that man’s friends’ revenge. The ending is strong. To be honest, I’m just glad that the children depicted in the film come from loving homes with two parents.
My predictions for Oscar voting
This is a tough category to begin with, and the Academy voting body has changed quite a bit in recent years, making it even more difficult to predict.
The one that seems like a traditional Academy pick is “Marguerite”. It has an older protagonist and deals with the injustice of not being able to live your own sexuality. On the other hand, “Skin” is the one film here that tells a satisfyingly complete story at a pace that will hold the interest of all but the least patient viewers. “Madre” is the most commercial and the long take directing (and Spanish language) could appeal in a year where Roma is sweeping awards.
If I was voting, I might choose “Fauve”. It has a strong sense of sound, production design, kid acting, editing and cinematography. It’s also quite oblique in its storytelling. However, I think the ‘young boy in peril’ similarities will keep it from standing out in the front of mind from the competition, especially “Detainment”.
The largest block of voters is actors, so perhaps what will decide the vote is which short film Academy members will feel had the finest acting and the juiciest roles. In that regard, again I would put it between “Marguerite” and “Madre”. Both also had roles for two generations. “Marguerite” had more of a balance between the roles and more emoting without dialogue. So I guess I’ve talked myself into “Marguerite” as the favorite.
In any case, these are all films worthy of voting for and together they form a strong (if pessimistic about the future of our children) collective program. Any emerging filmmaker should consider checking out the theatrical run to see what their peers are up to.