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Oscars 2019 – Best Live Action Short Nominees

A common strain among the majority of the live action short film nominees this year is a focus on child figures who come of age in the most traumatic ways imaginable. The children in these films learn of the terrible weights isolation, violence, and frail mortality can carry, and there’s no guarantee that they’ll come out the other side. Spanning four countries, these shorts, while I would not call any of them masterpieces, all have their own strengths and attributes.

Madre screenshot Oscars Live Action Short 2019
Blanca Apilanez Fernandez in “Madre”

The first short comes from Spain and is told not through the point of view of the child, but the matriarchal figure, entitled Madre. The lead character, Marta, (Marta Nieto) receives a phone call from her son, telling her that his father left him alone on the beach. He has no idea where his father went or which beach he’s currently at. As the father’s cell phone battery begins to die and the sun starts going down, Marta and her mother (Blanca Apilanez Fernandez) desperately race against time to locate the child. Told in mainly one take, director Rodrigo Sorogoyen glides through the set with a Steadicam, going faster and tightening on Marta’s face. Sorgoyen’s aesthetic, while fluid, also manages to attain a frantic tension, and Nieto’s believable, brilliant performance puts us in her situation, one which would be any parent’s worst nightmare. The short ends abruptly, feeling more like a prologue to a bigger story than a complete film, and the end credits are notably distracting with flashy fonts and electronic music, but in visual terms, it is the most striking of the nominees, and perhaps my favorite of the bunch.

Fauve Screenshot Oscars Live Action Short 2019
Félix Grenier in “Fauve”

Next, we have Fauve, one of two shorts made in Canada, which won a special jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival. This one shows two boys spending their days goofing around, playing games with each other in wild desolate areas, including an abandoned railroad. Things take a dark turn when one of the boys is involved in a harrowing situation at a construction site. Director Jeremy Comte portrays the environment as sprawling grounds of liberation, perfect for the kind of anarchic behavior of children. But by the story’s second half, Comte lends his environment a more foreboding feel, where anything can happen in the wilderness, and the possibilities of isolation and death start to settle in. One particular shot that stuck with me is a long shot involving a tiny figure with no one else around as far as the eye can see as the figure cries for help. A haunting piece of work.

Marguerite Screenshot Oscars Live Action Short 2019
Béatrice Picard in “Marguerite”

Thirdly, we have Marguerite, the other Canadian short, and the only one of the nominees not to have any child characters in it. Instead, our leading lady is Marguerite, an elderly woman in her twilight years being cared for by a youthful, kindly nurse. When Marguerite learns of her nurse’s sexual orientation, she attempts to come to terms with her own sexuality and the choices she made throughout her life.. Like Madre, it is essentially a two-woman ensemble with legendary Canadian French actress Beatrice Picard in the title role. Her quiet, understated performance carries the short, even through its most saccharine moments, (She asks her nurse what it’s like to make love to a woman, to which the nurse responds, “It’s beautiful.”) right up to its sappy, but also tender final shot.

Detainment Screenshot Oscars Live Action Short 2019
Leon Hughes in “Detainment”

We then move to Ireland where our focus is once again on a pair of male miscreants who come face to face with death, only this time the consequences of their actions directly affect a third party, and this story is sadly all too real. Based on the 1993 murder of James Bulger at the hands of two ten year old boys, Robert Thompson and Jon Veneables, Detainment dramatizes the events using actual transcripts and interviews with the boys which were conducted by the police, cutting back in time to when they abducted little James (the filmmakers wisely do not show the abuse the boys inflict on the toddler, nor the actual murder). As the police attempt to understand the boys’ motives, the two struggle to form an alibi before eventually confessing to their involvement, unable to articulate why they did it. Unfortunately, by the end, neither can we. Credit has to be given to Ely Solan and Leon Hughes as Jon and Robert, for their harrowing, convincing performances, but the filmmakers’ decision to simply use the transcripts prevents us from really getting inside these boys’ heads, and the approach in using sporadic flashes, particularly during the flashbacks, feels like we’re watching a crime procedural on cable TV.

Jamie Bell Skin Screenshot Oscar Live Action Short 2019
Jamie Bell in “Skin”

Lastly, we have our solo nominee from the U.S, called Skin. Directed by an Israeli, Guy Nattiv, it chronicles the slice of life experience of a little boy living in an undisclosed blue collar town with his parents. At first, the parents seem to be your standard type, giving the boy a buzz cut, hanging out with their friends and drinking beer, and teaching their son how to handle a hunting rifle. But all these little moments hint at a darker background which culminates in the father’s volatile reaction to a harmless encounter between his son and a black man, as the father and his friends beat the man nearly to death out in the parking lot in front of the man’s screaming family. The boy watches passively, not out of malice or hate, but with the sort of unquestioning acceptance a young child would express, as everything his family has taught him are the seeds of white supremacy that have been planted in his mind. Before we can register this revelation, it isn’t long before the dad is abducted by a group of friends of the black man he attacked the night before, as he’s subjected to a cruel punishment. What they do to him, I will not reveal, but it results in a climax that shows how the shallow rhetoric of racial hate and violence is a destructive force that damages everyone involved. When the father is taken away, one of the abductors is also the black man’s son, around the same age as our lead boy, who watches from the back of their truck as they drive away, and sees him cry out for his daddy. Moments like these express caution on the lessons we impart on our children and the toxic cycle of violence.

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