The 2018 Live Action Short Oscar nominees feature some of the best films this category has had in years. With not a loser in the bunch, this year’s crop features some outstanding new talent, both in front of and behind the camera. From a school in Atlanta, to the border between Kenya and Somalia, the Live Action short nominees take us across the world and present a quick burst of great characters, intriguing ideas, and stories usually untold in the film world. These shorts prove that a well-told short can be just as great an accomplishment as an entire feature length film.
DeKalb Elementary – directed by Reed Van Dyk
Based on a real 911 phone call made from an Atlanta school, DeKalb Elementary is a harrowing short that shows the strengths of the short format. Bo Mitchell (Steven Hall) walks into the titular elementary school, pulls out a semi-automatic gun and starts shooting in the direction of the cops that have been called. Reed Van Dyk’s style is reminiscent of Gus Van Sant’s Elephant at first, but once Bo meets the school secretary Tarra Riggs (a tremendous Cassandra Rice), the mood lightens as Tarra attempts to defuse the situation.
Van Dyk gives glimpses into who Tarra and Bo are, as the two discuss troubled pasts and mental issues that have led Bo to this choice, yet DeKalb Elementary always is completely natural. Rice’s performance steals the entire category, comforting and commanding in equal measures, and a genuinely caring voice in an impossible situation. It’s as if Van Dyk attempted to take the a seemingly unsympathetic story and imbue it with nuance and compassion. For its twenty-one minutes, Van Dyk never lets his foot off the gas, crafting an intense and impeccably directed short with heart and the single finest performance of any of the live-action short nominees.
My Nephew Emmett – directed by Kevin Wilson Jr.
My Nephew Emmett tells the story of Emmett Till’s murder in 1955 Mississippi, but makes the unexpected choice of making Till a secondary character. Instead, Kevin Wilson Jr.’s short focuses on Till’s uncle Mose Wright (L.B. Williams), who Till lived with. Wilson Jr. sets the stage by showing the quiet like of the Wright home, only to upend this in the second half, with a unflinchingly realistic horror that makes the silence all the more terrifying. By making Till a supporting player, the short shows the hopelessness and inability to fight back from such abominable acts. My Nephew Emmett takes it time to get going – an oddity for a short – but that second half makes the slow intro pay off with a shocking tragedy that still feels like an all too real possibility.
The Eleven O’Clock – directed by Derin Seale and Josh Lawson
Maybe the hardest genre to pull off in the short format is comedy. A short will have only enough time to go for one big joke – putting all of its comedy eggs in one basket – and at least usually in this category, relies on some twist to draw the audience in. Such is the case with The Eleven O’Clock, the only comedy in this year’s category, and the only short not based on actual events. The Eleven O’Clock’s conceit is that two men (Josh Lawson and Damon Herriman) arrive for a therapy session, although they both believe that they are the therapist, and that the other person is there because they have delusions of also being a therapist. The entire shorts plays like an elongated version of “Who’s on First?,” and relies on a twist that should be obvious from the very beginning. The Eleven O’Clock is a cute idea that gets in and gets out, without leaving much of an impression.
The Silent Child – directed by Chris Overton and Rachel Shenton
All of this year’s nominees focus on a pair of people – be it a duo of fake therapists, unlikely friends, or assailant and victim – but none have a connection quite like the pair at the center of The Silent Child. Rachel Shenton – who also wrote The Silent Child – stars as Joanne, a social worker brought in by a family to work with their deaf child Libby (Maisie Sly). The family can all hear, which leaves Libby on the outskirts of her own family, becoming an afterthought in their everyday routines. As the only person who has bothered to hear her, Joanne and Libby strike up quite the friendship, and watching them interact is charming. Yet Libby’s family’s misunderstanding of what their daughter needs leads to this friendship, and Libby’s well-being, in danger. The Silent Child often skirts close to becoming PSA-like, but the short’s ability to tell fulfilling arcs and great character dynamics avoids this. With a strong connection between leads, and an ending that packs an emotional wallop, The Silent Child is likely the short to beat.
Watu Wote: All of Us – directed by Katja Benrath and Tobias Rosen
Like My Nephew Emmett, Watu Wote: All of Us is another slow starter that builds steadily to a powerful conclusion. Jua (Adelyne Wairimu) is a Christian with prejudices against Muslims, who is forced to face her preconceived notions on a bus ride through Kenya. Upon entering the bus, Jua has no choice but to sit next to a Muslim woman and her daughter, yet when the bus is overtaken by Al-Shabaab terrorists, Jua and the other passengers must come together to survive. Director Katja Benrath does a solid job of creating tension between the two different ideologies, even before the terrorists enter the scene, yet the Watu Wote’s characters are little more than what they believe. Watu Wote: All of Us is a veracious short that asks to focus on the humanity that connects us, rather than the beliefs that can put up walls.
AND THE OSCAR GOES TO…
In recent years, Academy voters have leaned towards heartwarming and touching picks in this category, instead of overly political and challenging films. Past winners have included the students-versus-evil-teacher Sing, the difficult romance of Stutterer, and the Sally Hawkins’ starring The Phone Call. With that in mind, The Silent Child seems like the most likely film to fit that role. DeKalb Elementary might be the most challenging, but in a category where voters tend to go with their heart, The Silent Child makes the most sense, and is an excellent choice.