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Oscars 2021 – Best Live Action Short

Alex reviews the nominees in the short film categories for the 2021 Oscars. The following are his thoughts on the Live Action Short nominees.

Feeling Through

On a late New York evening, a young man, Tereek, looks for a place to stay. Texting friends to see if they happen to have a couch he can crash on, he comes across a man standing silently on the edge of the sidewalk. The man holds a notebook explaining he needs someone to accompany him to the bus stop, as he is both blind and deaf. Not wanting to miss a housing opportunity from one of his buddies, Tereek reluctantly agrees to help the man, named Artie, leading him to the bus stop and keeping him company until his bus arrives.  As the time passes, Tereek finds himself won over by Artie’s charm and an instant friendship kindles between the two.

Despite the authentic casting of a blind-deaf actor, the character of Artie fails to develop beyond a problematic archetype. But there are little details that make the central relationship believable, like the clever way Tereek is able to communicate with Artie by finger tracing on his palm to form letters. As a proponent for compassion and charity, Feeling Through is simplistic, but well-intentioned.

Two Distant Strangers

What if you were to relive the worst day of your life? One that ends with your life cut tragically short? That is the basic dilemma Carter James (Joey Bada$$) faces after a deadly encounter with a paranoid cop (Andrew Howard) while trying to get back home to his dog in Two Distant Strangers.

Carter tries finding a way to literally outrun death, but every possible scenario invariably results in him ending up killed. The various scenarios resulting in the same horrid fate for him take their cues from real life killings of BIPOC by police, treated with intense drama, as well as a little bit of dark humor. Carter becomes so accustomed to his time loop that he can enumerate every personal detail of the cop’s life, including his overly concerned mother, leaving the officer completely dumbfounded.

The time loop plot has been used in so many films, from Groundhog Day to last year’s Palm Springs, that it could almost fall into a subgenre category of its own. Two Distant Strangers, however, rejuvenates the premise through a racial lens, conveying the struggle young African-American men face while trying to survive in a system where nearly every action could spell certain doom. The film closes with a list of names of black men, women and children, with detailed descriptions as to cause of death, ranging from Breonna Taylor to George Floyd. Yet rather than despair, the film closes with a fierce tenacity to challenge a fate predetermined for too long by a white, affluent hegemony. A likely frontrunner for the Oscar.

The Present

Two of this year’s nominees come from neighboring countries, Palestine and Israel, each compelling dramas. The setup of Palestine’s The Letter, sounds like an ordinary slice-of-life tale. In celebration of their anniversary, Yusef is set on buying his wife, Noor, a special gift. Their old fridge seems to be on its final legs, and it’s about time they get a new one. Their daughter, Yasmine, wants to go with her papa to help buy the fridge. It may sound like a simple outing, but The Present‘s setting in the West Bank makes it anything but for this Palestinian father and daughter.

Told over a single day, the film does a solid job at painting the nearly inhumane obstacles our heroes have to overcome for running a simple errand. Such difficulties faced include having to stand in large, cage-like cells while Israeli soldiers inspect items at customs, as well as being forced to lug the fridge on a trolley cart after a vehicle is unable to drive through an armed blockade. Although the tense finale veers toward the didactic before ending on an anticlimactic note, The Letter is a solid dramatization of the hardships Palestinian citizens face under the Netanyahu government.

Israel’s White Eye provides a marked contrast to The Letter in both content and aesthetic, though each of these shorts share a humanistic approach. Omer Attias calls the police telling them he has found his stolen bike attached to a parking space with a lock. Unfortunately, two officers that arrive on the scene inform him of his legal prohibition from removing the bike after failing to formally file a complaint. A frustrated Omer resorts to desperate measures to retrieve his bike, including asking a mechanic to help him cut off the lock, and ultimately confronts the bike’s apparent owner, leading to irreversible damage.

Shot entirely in a single take, director Tomer Shushan’s approach externalizes Omer’s intense urgency in retaining his bike, even though we are never given enough background to justify his need to regain his mode of transportation. The story takes an unexpected turn as Omer becomes embroiled with undocumented refugees, and the consequent transition is one toward desperation as Omer, aware of the ramifications of his actions, finds himself helplessly trying to make amends. White Eye effectively uses its freewheeling camera movement to raise awareness of our protagonist’s surroundings, its inhabitants living in conditions that require discretion and self-preservation for fear of exposure. In the closing moments when a call girl notices an off-screen act of violent desecration before getting into a cab, she opts the role of silent bystander over risking indirectly bringing attention to herself from local authorities. One of the best in this category.

The Letter Room

Richard (Oscar Isaac) is a prison guard with a huge heart for the inmates. He knows everyone by name, always greeting them with a friendly demeanor. Perhaps he is able to sympathize with them because he himself lives a solitary existence, having no one but his dog. It is also because of his approachable nature the warden promotes him to Director of Prisons Communication. In layman’s terms, he is relocated to the letter room, scanning all incoming mail for inmates for any potential contraband. One particular set of letters, sent from a death row inmate’s lover, Rosita (Alia Shawkat), intrigues Richard with their passionate eloquence and highly charged eroticism. He becomes fixated with Rosita’s letters to the point of getting personally involved when her latest missive strikes concerns in him that she might harm herself after her lover’s parole is denied.

I will not disclose what happens next, but there is a twist proving not all is what it seems. The prevailing quality of The Letter Room is its advocation for connection, one that proves surprisingly relevant for a wide audience who have spent the past year largely living in quarantine. Our inherent desire to connect lays the groundwork for bringing color and vitality to what would otherwise be a dull and dreary existence. What Frank learns by the end is that context isn’t always everything; the chance to receive contact from someone can be enough to help one get through a day. A straightforward, yet still heartfelt short.

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