Oscar Gold 2018 – Live Action Short

Tonight we enter the home stretch of this year’s Oscar coverage. There are seven categories left to dig into, plus one more omnibus post on Friday, March 2, where I’ll actually predict the results, whether they concur with my analysis and preferences or not. We have two more technical categories and two more specialty film categories before the final three major awards. For the record, I still have one more nominated film to see, and I’ll take care of that sometime this week (Roman J. Israel, Esq.).

But for now, let’s turn our attention to the final short subject category, Live Action Short. It pretty much splits the difference of the other two categories as far as running time. While the Animated Shorts are usually less than 10 minutes, and the Documentary Shorts are at least a half hour, if not the full limit of 40 minutes, the Live Action Shorts tend to be right in the middle, around 20-25 minutes, which makes for good pace.

More importantly, we get the biggest mix of thematic material in this category as opposed to the others. The cartoons are almost always comedies or dramatic art statements. The docs are always serious, whether the story is positive or negative. With the Live Action Shorts, you get funny, dramatic, serious, downright dark, and also life-affirming in any given year. You can also get really interesting experimentation with short-form special effects, a mix of established actors with unknowns, and some of the best storytelling possible. These aren’t just one-act plays on screen. These are fully realized stories with a beginning, middle, and end in a succinct package, and I absolutely love it.

As an added bonus at the screenings this year, four of the five nominees were accompanied with a little bonus scene. For all but our first nominee, as the credits rolled, the people at ShortsTV – who provided the screeners – inserted a scene of each film’s production team learning of their Oscar nomination. For the lighter fare, it was a lovely bit of celebration. For the darker material, it helped to relieve the tension that had built up over the preceding 20 minutes.

This year’s nominees for Live Action Short are:

DeKalb Elementary – Reed Van Dyk
I went to a screening last Wednesday with my girlfriend, the first part of our Valentine’s date. Little did we know that on the opposite coast there were real people dealing with the horror of what we were watching on screen. The film involves a man threatening a school with an assault rifle. In Parkland, Florida, 17 were killed while we were blissfully unaware in a movie theatre.

It’s hard to compartmentalize these things knowing what happened after the fact, but this was an incredibly intense film. There aren’t that many movies out there about school shootings (We Need to Talk About Kevin comes to mind, but not much else), mostly because it’s a terror that can really happen – and sadly has to a heartbreaking extent. The film begins with the assailant chasing everyone out of the main office of the school except for the receptionist, who is allowed to call 911 and moderate on his behalf. He is clearly disturbed. His mood wildly swings between wanting to kill everyone, to wanting to kill police, to not wanting to kill anyone.

Based on a real 911 call, the main focus is on the shooter, Steven Hall (Bo Mitchell) and Cassandra Rice (Tarra Riggs) in the office, trying to talk him off the steepest of ledges. In the short runtime of the film, the two develop an understanding bordering on rapport, that helps to diffuse the situation. The two play off each other tremendously well, the tension continuously building as the crisis deescalates.

The Eleven O’Clock – Derin Seale and Joshua Lawson
An utterly hilarious tête-à-tête farce from Australia, two accomplished actors take a bit of absurdist sketch comedy and turn it into free-wheeling gold. Based upon the “Psychiatrists” sketch from the British show A Bit of Fry and Laurie (as in Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie), actors Josh Lawson (House of Lies – he also produced the film) and Damon Herriman (Justified) go back and forth in a scenario where a psychiatrist is meeting a new patient, who happens to believe he is a psychiatrist seeing a new patient.

The premise has been done in other forms over the years, but the ridiculousness of the comedy still resonates. I was reminded a few times of a segment from The Ricky Gervais Show where Ricky and Steve asked Karl Pilkington what he would do if he had a dopplegänger, to which a befuddled Karl replied, “How would I know which one I was?” That’s how brilliantly this works. It takes an absurd argument, something akin to the Black Knight battle from Monty Python and the Holy Grail (“Look you stupid bastard, you’ve got no arms left!” “Yes I have!”), and then constantly elevates the drama to the point of violence. There were also shades of The Voorman Problem, a nominee in this category from a few years ago, where an inmate played by Tom Hollander was able to convince a psychiatrist played by Martin Freeman that he was God and could eliminate Belgium from existence.

Part of the fun is the fact that discovering the true doctor is a relatively simple proposition. There are diplomas on the wall (which one of them gestures to at one point), and family photographs on the desk. Hell, you can even punch a hole in the logic by the fact that when security is finally called, he would surely recognize the regular occupant of the office but doesn’t. But none of that matters, because the dynamic between Lawson and Herriman is just so fantastic. They play off each other so well that logic can just go right out the fucking window. I haven’t laughed so hard in a while.

My Nephew Emmett – Kevin Wilson, Jr.
A dramatic reenactment of the final night of Emmett Till’s life, as told from the point of view of his uncle, who was hosting the boy in Mississippi when he visited from Chicago. The film depicts Till’s murder as the turning point for Mose Wright more than anything else, as the film ends with him giving his famous news interview about the invasion of his home, and the subsequent kidnapping and murder of Emmett (which is aired during the credits for comparison to the filmed scene).

I kind of get where the film was going here, because the moments leading up to Emmett’s abduction are much more about Mose maintaining the status quo. When the murderers invade his home in the dead of night, Mose doesn’t stand up for his rights or call the police, he simply begs for Emmett to be either spared or treated lightly. He even offers to take the teenager’s place, for he is an old man. But he eventually relents when he’s promised by racists with a gun to his head that they’ll just rough Emmett up enough to teach him some respect. The film is much more about Mose learning the objective truth about hateful people who lie to his face than it is the tragedy of Emmett.

I think this was kind of a missed opportunity. I’m not always one for graphic violence when subtlety can get the point across just as easily. That said, if you were ever going to justify a Passion of the Christ-style snuff film, this was the time to do it. Emmett Till was a real boy, murdered for allegedly whistling at a white woman (who has since recanted her story, so really he was murdered solely for being black). His mother made sure to have his casket open at the funeral, so the world could see what they had done to her baby, so that we could learn the lessons of this tragedy, and turn away from hatred, racism, and injustice. Given today’s political climate, where Klansmen and Nazis are emboldened by the government, we arguably need graphic lessons in our history to make sure we aren’t doomed to repeat it.

The Silent Child – Chris Overton and Rachel Shenton
Rachel Shenton writes and stars in this treacly entry about life for a young deaf child. Based on her own experiences growing up with a deaf parent, Stenton stars as Joanne, a social worker hired by a posh British family to help make their daughter Libby find a way to communicate before she starts school. Libby is profoundly deaf, though she can read lips a bit, but for the most part she’s cut off from the rest of her family.

Joanne introduces Libby to sign language, and the two form a special bond, which of course makes mother Susan jealous and petty, as she’s ashamed of having a child who’s in any way conspicuous. She would rather have her daughter be seen as normal but still be socially and educationally isolated than appear outwardly different.

While one film in this set is in a foreign language, this was the first one to play with subtitles, because it’s meant to promote the well-being of the deaf community, so Shenton wanted the film to be accessible to them as well. It does make for a bit of an odd experience when you realize that aim despite the film having an ambient musical score, but it’s easily forgivable. What really matters is the relationship between Joanne and Libby (played by deaf child actress Maisie Sly), and it’s heartwarming in the extreme.

Watu Wote (All of Us) – Katja Benrath and Tobias Rosen
Directed by Benrath as her graduation project at the Hamburg Media School in Germany, the film depicts the real-life events of a Mandera Bus Attack in 2015, where militants from Al-Shabaab in Kenya hijack a chartered bus full of Christians and Muslims, and demand the Muslims identify the Christians so they can be killed.

The film focuses on Jua, a young woman in Kenya traveling to visit a relative. She is Christian and very distrustful of Muslims, as militants killed her husband and child. She boards a bus for a 31-hour journey, where police escorts are limited. Her biases are challenged by Salah Farah, a Muslim teacher who wishes to show her that Islam is not her enemy, only those who would warp the faith to justify violence. He is traveling to see his wife give birth. When the bus is attacked, Jua learns firsthand how faith can condemn and redeem, as she and the other Christians on the bus are protected by their Muslim brothers and sisters, even at risk to their own lives.

The dramatic tension is ever-present, and ratcheted up at just the right pace. Also, the acting gets top marks, as does the camera work. This is a necessary film right now, as our country – and the world at large – needs constant reminders that the violence is from a very hateful minority, and that xenophobia gets us nowhere. The film won a Student Academy Award, and is the only film across all three short subject categories to be filmed primarily in a foreign language (Swahili, I believe).

My Rankings:
1) The Eleven O’Clock
2) DeKalb Elementary
3) The Silent Child
4) Watu Wote (All of Us)
5) My Nephew Emmett

Next up: The Sound Mixing category features the same nominees as Sound Editing, but will the rankings turn out the same?

Join the conversation in the comments below! Did you guffaw at fake psychiatrists? Did little Libby make you squee as much as I did? Do you think a statement film should win, or the one that simply entertained you the most? Let me know!

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