For a couple of years now, the kindly folk at Shorts International have made it possible to see all ten of the Oscar-nominated short films in art houses around the country; they’re not always the best the form has to offer, but it’s generally a happy state of affairs when you get to see a short film on the big screen. Which is what drove me to check out this year’s live-action offerings, having skipped out last year due to time, money, and general indifference.
The Confession (Tanel Toom, UK)
Screened first in the Shorts International program
Two little boys prepare for the first confession, when one of them, Sam (Lewis Howlett), realises to his absolute horror that he’s never committed a sin in his short life. So he and his unpleasant friend Jacob (Joe Eales) concoct a plot so that Sam can do something really naughty just in time to be absolved. Sounds like a real charming picture, right?
Oh, fuck, no. In a surprisingly austere slate of nominees, The Confession (winner of an honorary award at this year’s Student Oscars) still takes the cake for most stone-faced and self-serious of the lot, for Sam and Jacob’s innocent prank quickly escalates out of control and in no time at all, three people are dead. That’s already a hell of a lot to pile onto one simple little tale of innocence lost, but things get worse anyway.
Whether this adds up to something or not, I can’t quite say; but Toom (who came up with the idea, though Caroline Bruckner wrote the script) seems at any rate to have some really pronounced grievances against Catholicism, which comes out of the film looking pretty battered. Catholic guilt is a topic that has been explored hundreds of times throughout cinema history, but I have to admit that the specific idea that a neurotic obsession with confession turns children into killers is a new one to me.
In accord with its shockingly dark theme, The Confession is glowering and gloomy, its musty woodland settings shot in sepulchral blues and clinging shadows; what isn’t blue is watery and dessicated, like the repeated, oh-so-symbolic shot of a scarecrow standing in for a crucifix. It’s atmospheric and crushingly joyless, though on the whole I think that the whole thing is handsome enough in its brooding that Toom probably could make a pretty damn good horror film if he ever decides that he’s done with unwatchably cruel coming-of-age stories.
Howlett gives a remarkably natural performance for a first time child actor; it’s due almost entirely to his presence that The Confession manages to be even a little bit meaningful; he alone gives some human-sized emotion to an otherwise pointlessly unhappy, if technically accomplished, act of cosmic pessimism, not so much chilly as it is encased in a foot-thick wall of ice.
The Crush (Michael Creagh, Ireland)
Screened fourth in the Shorts International program
A little boy, Ardal (Oran Creagh) is hopelessly in love with his schoolteacher (Olga Wehrly), and has just managed to secure what he thinks is a promise that she’ll marry him when he’s old enough, in five years. Then he discovers, quite by chance, that she’s just gotten engaged to her actual boyfriend (Rory Keenan). With the fire of a true lover, he prepares to show her why he is the only man who can truly make her happy. Sounds like a real charming picture, right?
Oh, fuck, no. Though it starts off a lot cuter, The Crush ends up just as bitter and unpleasant as The Confession, and with much less justification. The first film at least has the benefit of consistency: it sets out to be serious and remains so. The Crush, however, slightly more than halfway through its 15 minutes, takes a turn for Insanity Land, right about the moment that sweet little Ardal pulls a gun on his rival and forces the older man to confess his venality. And once again, that darkness is largely pointless: it’s far too nasty a film to tell us anything terribly valuable or meaningful about first love, suggesting only that Ardal is some kind of prepubescent sexual psychopath.
It’s at least possible that all of this was meant to be an absurd comedy, but Oran Creagh’s performance is too stiff and inflexible to allow that: he delivers every single line in the same monotone, which if anything only increases our sense that this little boy is some kind of soulless devil. And yes, yes, I know, you don’t get to judge child actors by as harsh a yardstick… but when their presence is thiss deleterious to the whole, I don’t see how you can avoid it.
At any rate, Creagh’s direction is mostly fine, with a handful of well-chosen angles here and there; though he certainly doesn’t try very hard to guide the film’s tone. And he can do absolutely nothing with the final scene, which tries to restore the lighthearted whimsy of the opening, but just comes across as confused and arbitrary. The weakest, by a good margin, of the five nominees.
God of Love (Luke Matheny, USA)
Screened fifth in the Shorts International program
And now for something completely different: a movie that’s actually pleasant to watch. The winner of this year’s Student Academy Award for Best Narrative, God of Love finds Matheny doing triple duty, also writing and starring as Ray, the lead singer of a novelty band that performs ’40s-style torch songs while he performs dart tricks. He’s in love with bandmate Kelly (Marian Brock), she’s in love with their other bandmate Fozzie (Christopher Hirsh), and Ray has spent the most of the last year praying for her to fall in love with him. His prayers are answered in the form of a box of magic darts that turn Ray into a modern-day Cupid, though he has to learn for himself that it is better to bring love to others than to hog it for yourself.
It’s never not a student film, if you follow me, and its self-satisfied ironic tone (from Metheny’s delight in playing up his own gangliness to the glossy black-and-white cinematography) is overtly, if not oppressively, hipsterish. But there’s no denying the latent talent that Metheny and DP Bobby Webster bring to the proceedings, and the sense of humor is generally too self-effacing to feel as smug as it might. The whole thing is tremendously breezy – at 18 minutes, its not the shortest of the five, though it feels like it – a lark that knows what it is and doesn’t strive to be anything else.
There are plenty of holes that could be poked in the film, if you were of a mind: the structure is wonky (it opens with a wholly unnecessary flash-forward), there’s no real effort to engage with the inner lives of any of the secondary characters, and the concept as laid out for our benefit is inconsistently applied. But these are not things you notice while the film is going on; it’s too light and fluffy to encourage that kind of criticism in the moment, instead preferring to be charming and just sarcastic enough to give it some snap.
Na Wewe (Ivan Goldschmidt, Belgium)
Screened third in the Shorts International program
It says a lot about how much joylessness the other filmmakers were able to squeeze out of darling children in the British Isles that the slate’s most unabashedly serious movie, about the intersection of racism and violence in Rwanda, isn’t even in the running for the title of “Most Depressing”.
In Burundi, in 1994, a van carrying several African people and one white European is stopped by one of the hundreds of guard points littered throughout Rwanda. The men with guns force everybody but the white man out, and demand that the Hutus stand on one side of the road, the Tutsis on the other. As the group seems unwilling to self-divide -gee, I wonder why – the leader of the guerillas questions each person in the group individually, and he (and we) find that the issue of ethnic identity isn’t a clear-cut binary. Why, you might even say that it’s a terrible, arbitrary reason to kill a huge percentage of your country’s population!
There’s no doubt that Na Wewe – revealed in the film to mean something like “you too” – has its heart squarely in the right place, though there’s something distinctly off-kilter about a film set during the Rwandan genocide in which not a single person ends up dead. The message about the meaninglessness of race and racism is impossible to fault, of course, though I wonder if in 16 years, we’ve really come to this point: where Rwanda can be used as a vehicle for a parable, without any real attention paid to the truth of the genocide itself (Rwanda really has become the new Holocaust, in that respect).
Still, for all its thematic flimsiness, the film is well made, and impeccably acted; though hobbled by its intense piety, it’s actually quite an engaging thing to watch, purposefully striding from one character and metaphoric argument to the next with a clarity of vision and narrative efficiency that makes the film work perfectly well as a thriller, and it’s hard to demand more of a message movie than that.
Wish 143 (Ian Barnes, UK)
Screened second in the Shorts International program
And so it is that the story of a teenage boy with cancer ends up being one of the more comparatively playful films in the slate, though that’s not just because the nominees are an exercise in misery porn. In fact, this tale of how David (Samuel Peter Holland) wants the folks from some Make-A-Wish knockoff to arrange for him to lose his virginity before he dies, is surprisingly un-starchy in its treatment of a sick kid.
The film’s greatest flaw (next to a 24-minute running time that it doesn’t quite fill successfully) lies in Barnes’s direction: he doesn’t seem absolutely sure how to best split the difference between the sentiment and the wry snark in Tom Bidwell’s screenplay, and too often plays for pathos what feels better-suited to sarcastic resignation. That’s a big problem, particularly when the film is couched alongside so many other pathos delivery bombs.
The good news, then, is that everything else works well: particularly Holland’s remarkable performance, which one hopes shall be the first of many times we hear from this young actor. It’s a sensitive, touching, and painfully real blend of anger and desire and deeply sublimated fear that gets hidden in a crusty veneer of cocky self-confidence. It’s not the only good performance in a rather well-stocked cast – television mainstay Jim Carter, as the priest looking to help David find some kind of inner peace, is particularly good in support – but it’s a performance without which the film couldn’t work half so well, perched as it is right on the brink of garish sentiment. The climactic scene in particular, in which David finally has his meeting with a prostitute, could have come across terrible, without a perfectly-conceived performance to ground it.
True, Wish 143 isn’t exactly a triumph of form – it’s slightly desaturated for no real reason and indifferently composed and edited – it’s solid enough that the central character study still manages to shine forth. It’s no masterpiece, but it’s the best of the lot, simple and honest and moving.