The Live Action Short Oscar category is a fascinating look at short-form storytelling, featuring exciting up-and-coming filmmakers telling a variety of unique stories. Well, usually. This year, four of the five nominees in the category focus on children in varying states of distress, and all of the shorts come from either North America or Europe. This year’s nominees are bleak affairs of tragedy, horror, and regret, yet the accomplishments of these shorts make the darkness worthwhile.
Detainment – directed by Vincent Lambe
The most horrific is the British short Detainment, a true story of two ten-year-old boys who murdered the 2-year-old James Bulger. Detainment is based on the actual transcripts and records taken by police who questioned the two boys, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, and the film itself has been criticized by the mother of Bulger.
The longest of the shorts, Detainment focuses on the police questioning and conflicting testimonies of Venables and Thompson. Venables – an excellent performance by Ely Solan – is distressed and terrified of the repercussions for his actions, while Thompson (Leon Hughes) is cold and defensive. The result humanizes Venables and Thompson, and Detainment ultimately finds their crimes to be senseless and thoughtless. Yet Detainment makes its existence questionable, as this is merely recreates events that are already well-documented. But as a retelling of a monstrous attack in Liverpool, director Vincent Lambe fills Detainment with a quiet terror that comes from these two boys’ appalling choices.
Fauve – directed Jérémy Comte
Quebec’s Fauve, from Jérémy Comte, also focuses on two young boys (Felix Grenier and Alexander Perreault), who play around one afternoon, trying to one-up each other with dares and little games they make up on the spot. This day of adventures suddenly takes a turn for the worst and becomes tragic. With gorgeous cinematography from Olivier Gossot, Fauve makes its bleak landscape overpowering, and its final shots end the film with a tremendous last image. Yet despite how heavy Fauve’s story ultimately becomes, the characters here never feel substantial, and the film’s final reveal doesn’t have the emotional payoff it thinks it does.
Madre – directed by Rodrigo Sorogoyen
Rodrigo Sorogoyen’s Madre at least avoids showing the suffering of the child at the center of its story. Instead, Sorogoyen follows a mother, Marta (Marta Nieto) who receives a call from her six-year-old son Iván, saying that his father has abandoned him on a beach. With Iván’s phone battery low, Marta must try to figure out where her son is before they are disconnected. To ratchet up the intensity even more, Sorogoyen tells the Marta’s story through one unbroken shot that lasts almost 15 minutes. Unlike the other shorts focusing on children in distress, Madre is almost more shocking due to what it keeps from its audience. As far as technical achievement, nothing else in this category comes close to Sorogoyen’s long take and the tension that arises from this one-sided story.
Marguerite – directed by Marianne Farley
Strangely, the most uplifting film in this year’s nominees is Marguerite, about the title character – played beautifully by Beatrice Picard – in the final years of her life contemplating the choices the wish she could’ve taken. Marguerite’s relationship with her nurse (Sandrine Bisson) is quite touching once Marguerite reveals her past regrets and her genuine joy that the world has evolved to allow for the life that she could not have. Marguerite’s warmth and friendship at its core is a pleasant respite from the inherent dread in the other nominees. It stands out as the best of the group.
Skin – directed by Guy Nattiv
The most heavy-handed and ridiculous of this year’s nominees is Skin, which features the most famous cast, and has already been adapted into an upcoming A24 film, also directed by Guy Nattiv. The Virgin Suicides’s Jonathan Tucker is Jeffrey, a white nationalist who along with his other racist friends brutally beats up an African-American man outside of a grocery store for interacting with his son Troy (It’s Jackson Robert Scott). When a gang getting justice for the beaten man kidnaps Jeffrey and plans to make an example out of him, the result is laughably bizarre karmic retribution. Nattiv’s story of anger begetting anger begetting anger, leading towards another generation of hate, is obvious and yet he still goes completely over-the-top with the film’s conclusion. Skin is a wild and incredibly flawed short about the pains of racism that goes way too far in trying to surprise its audience.
And the Oscar Goes To…
Considering that 4/5ths of the nominees in Live Action Short FIlm this year are about children in some sort of trouble, that similarity in films should work in the favor of Marguerite. Especially since this category has often gone for the most light-hearted film of the bunch in recent years, with Sing, Stutterer and The Silent Child all winning in recent years, expect the Academy to continue this trend with Marguerite, the only film in the category that has some glimmer of hope and happiness.