Even compared to previous years, the nominees for Best Live Action Shorts at this year’s Oscars are particularly grim. While these nominees are a bleak batch, they’re also a fine showcase for smaller stories, showing that less can be more, how to build character and narrative with a limited amount of time.
A Sister – directed by Delphine Girard
The restrained length of these shorts usually works well with films that try to tell a tense story, as is the case with Belgium’s A Sister. Telling two equally anxious sides of an urgent phone call, a woman (Selma Alaoui) calls an emergency operator (Veerle Baetens) after being held hostage by an abusive man (Guillaume Duhseme). The woman in the car tries to drop hints to the operator as to what her situation is, without having the driver catch on, while the operator attempts to save the woman in distress.
At just about fifteen minutes, Girard’s story is a tight short of increased stress. Similar to the previously nominated documentary short, Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1, is also shows the thankless nature of those operators who do all they can to help those in need.
Brotherhood – directed by Meryam Joobeur
The longest of the nominees, Brotherhood revolves around a father-and-son relationship, and how their lack of trust and openness with each other becomes detrimental for both. Mohamed (Mohamed Grayaâ), is a farmer in Tunisia, who is shaken when his oldest son, Malek (Malek Mechergui) returns home with his young, pregnant Syrian wife, Reem (Salha Nasraoui). Mohamed believes that his son has become a terrorist in Syria, while the son regrets having ever left home. Their lack of communication and trust after their reunion has major implications for their family.
Joobeur’s short is beautifully shot, with colors that pop, from the greens of the farm, to the red hair of Mohamed’s three sons. But Brotherhood stretches its story a bit much, taking its time before revealing twist after twist that feels like a rush to wrap up all its threads.
NEFTA Football Club – directed by Yves Piat
Easily the lightest of the five nominees, NEFTA Football Club is the rare nominee able to find the humor in harsh circumstances. Two brothers in Tunisia (Eltayef Dhaoudi and Mohamed Ali Ayari) find a mule carrying drugs and decide to take the cache home. One brother knows the find is drugs, while the other believes the white powder to be laundry detergent. Meanwhile, the mule’s owners (Lyès Salem and Hichem Mesbah) try to find their literal drug mule, who they have trained to go home when he hears Adele’s “Someone Like You” on his mule headphones.
NEFTA Football Club manages to be quirky, while also grounded in the reality. The humor comes naturally from the weird, unexpected nature of the situation, and the story ends with a solid twist that goes well with the absurd nature of the story.
Saria – directed by Bryan Buckley
If violent kidnappings, families torn apart by ISIS and kids finding drugs isn’t dark enough for you, Saria is the horrifying true story to end all remnants of joy one might have while watching these shorts. Saria centers on two sisters (Estefania Tellez and Gabriela Ramirez) who live in a Guatemalan orphanage full of beatings and rape. The sisters and their fellow orphans plan an uprising to escape and get to the United States, but their plan ends in a massive tragedy.
Based on a true event, Saria deserves more than just a short to tell this story. There’s no time to build these characters or get a larger understanding of this world they’re forced into, before violence and hysteria break out. Buckley’s short is the most sprawling in terms of what it’s trying to do, and it’s mostly a success, but it’s also the short that most needs a larger scale to do this story justice.
The Neighbors’ Window – directed by Marshall Curry
Director Marshall Curry is no stranger to Oscar nominations, having been nominated twice times in the documentary short category, for the films A Night at the Garden, If A Tree Falls, and nominated in the documentary feature category for Street Fight. His first narrative live-action short, The Neighbors’ Window, follows a married couple with three kids, Alli (Maria Dizzia) and Jacob (Greg Keller), who start to spy on their twenty-something neighbors in the apartment complex opposite theirs. Alli and Jacob start to miss their younger life, as they watch this other couple over the course of a year, in this that short ultimately becomes a “the grass is greener on the other side” parable.
Dizzia’s performance is one of the finest of all the nominees, but the melodrama of the story, from the use of a The National song, to the occasionally silly and stilted writing (also by Curry) undercut this intriguing, but fairly simple short. It’s a decent beginning into the world of narrative storytelling for Curry, but also feels like the most formulaic of them all.
And the Oscar Goes To…
The last three winners in this category were shorts centered around children, Sing, The Silent Child and last year’s remarkably stupid, Skin. Plus, the last decade of nominees have mostly avoided any topics that are too weighty or dark. Considering NEFTA Football Club is both about two boys and is the lightest of the nominees, that seems like the most likely winner this year.