As stated in my review of the 2017 animated short film nominees, the Academy Awards deliver a fascinating look at filmmaking by way of short films. The successful development of characters and story, along with the connection on an emotional level in a small amount of time works in a manner different from feature-length film, but in a way that’s just as interesting. That kind of challenge can often lead to the discovery of new talent. Additionally, regardless of what they move onto, there’s always the work they have created showing just how effective the cinematic experience on even the smallest of platforms. This post will focus on my reactions to the live-action short films nominated for Oscars at this year’s 90th Academy Awards.
Right away we start with my favorite of the bunch. As opposed to the animated short, the live-action films nominated for Oscars tend to skew more towards the dramatic side, and Dekalb Elementary certainly pushes on that heavily by way of any parent’s worst nightmare, let alone anyone in general. An unstable man enters an elementary school with a weapon, and while I will not say anything more about where things go, I will note the film relies heavily on a relationship that forms between the shooter and the school receptionist. This movie is taut and tense, and the work from Tarra Riggs as the receptionist, Cassandra, is the natural and grounded performance you hope to see in similar types of stories. The additional work to build a lot out of one location makes for all the better, as a level of scope is needed in the midst of what could be seen as closed-off situation shared between two people.
Country of origin: USA
Directed by: Reed Van Dyk
Synopsis: Steven, a mentally unstable twenty-something, enters an elementary school with a semi-automatic rifle. After he orders the school receptionist, Cassandra, to have the building evacuated, he holds her hostage and instructs her to call 911. With Cassandra as his go-between, Steven tries to navigate the troubled waters he has entered.
The only comedy of the nominees and it’s a good one. A play on misunderstandings and identity, The Eleven O’Clock has a fun premise that is given just the right amount of time to play out. The right performances make this story of doctor vs. patient all the better thanks to a blend of professionalism with some inherent quirkiness. If I have a gripe, it has to do with feeling like I was a step ahead of the short film early on, so the conclusion didn’t exactly throw me. Still, as a work of comedy, there is enough to admire and enough to praise when it comes to seeing a short film that tries to play things in a humorous and heightened manner.
Country of origin: Australia
Directed by: Derin Seale and Josh Lawson
Synopsis: A psychiatrist earnestly tries to help his delusional patient, but his efforts are complicated by the fact that the patient believes himself to be the doctor. With each trying to out-analyze the other, their session spirals out of control.
This historical adaptation goes over the angering point in history where a teenager suffered at the hands of racism. It led to the further progression of the Civil Rights movement but at a cost that is hard to consider in the realm of all the various horrors that occurred over many centuries. The primary focus of this story, however, is on Emmett Till’s uncle, who we see as a good man who already knows what to expect before bad things happen. Shot with lots of natural lighting and heavy use of shadow, My Nephew Emmett has the look of an accomplished visual artist, though I wonder how it could have been handled a bit differently from a narrative standpoint. The incorporation of archival footage is provided at the end, but given the history surrounding this event, something holding me back from embracing this film more is the lack of presentation regarding what isn’t heard or elaborated upon. Instead, we see lots of anger coming through on both sides, though I felt I understood what’s happening early on and could feel better seeing more of what came next.
Country of origin: USA
Directed by: Kevin Wilson Jr.
Synopsis: In 1955, two white men invade the home of Mose Wright, an African-American preacher in Mississippi, to abduct his 14-year-old nephew, Emmett Till, who is visiting from Chicago. Emmett has been accused of whistling at a white woman, and Mose knows that his fate will be sealed if the men succeed in taking him.
This is a good awareness film fit for audiences who are unaware of particular challenges. Filmed well enough to have me curious about specific cinematography choices and how they were accomplished amidst an involving story, The Silent Child works on a few levels. Not backing down from certain frustrating aspects, there are a few strong performances here, as we see both a warm-hearted and well-meaning social worker and a skeptical mother. Both illicit the kind of response the film is going for and without making either performance feel too broadly played. Being contained to only so much time, I would say there’s an element introduced that felt a bit confusing, even if I understood what was ultimately taking place. Regardless, the progression of this story leads to an ending fit for an independent short that needs to get across a message, which is good as far as making it memorable for those who are willing to listen.
Country of origin: United Kingdom
Directed by: Chris Overton and Rachel Senton
Synopsis: Libby, a profoundly deaf four-year-old, is the youngest child in a family who are all hearing. Unable to communicate but about to start school, Libby is assigned a social worker who teaches her sign language. Libby’s skeptical parents are reluctant to be involved, however, and pose a potential block to Libby’s education.
As I delve into Watu Wote, the final nominee, I should note that I appreciated and found a good amount of quality in every one of this year’s live-action contenders. Sometimes I feel like I miss understanding why some of the shorts got all the way to an Oscar nomination, but not the case here. That easily speaks to Watu Wote, a well-made dramatic feature delving into the complicated relationship shared between Christians and Muslims living in Kenya due to terrorist attacks. This is another film based on a true story from 2015, and it is expertly put together by directors Katja Benrath and Tobias Rosen. While the film reaches a violent and thrilling climax, the work done to build up the select number of characters we see is affecting. It makes for a better movie to have the sort of minimal insight we receive, as the universal theme of helping and standing up for one another, especially when considering the diverse populations we have in this world, lets the film have honest importance to it. The investment in this movie depends on how this story is told and the portrayal of it is worthwhile in a sense that clearly reflects the translated title of the short – All Of Us.
Country of origin: Germany, Kenya
Language: Swahili, Somali
Directed by: Katja Benrath and Tobias Rosen
Synopsis: Jua, a Christian living in Kenya, boards a chartered bus to visit a relative and is uncomfortable being surrounded by Muslim passengers. The bus is stopped by the violent terrorist group Al-Shabaab, whose members demand that the Muslims identify the Christian passengers.