The five nominees for Best Animated Short at the 91st Academy Awards, I have suggested, are pretty damn good, surprisingly so even. No such surprise is in store for the nominees for Best Live Action Short, which like the animated category, feels heavily dominated by one theme. There, it was stories of parent-child relationships, designed to make you cry. The crying part remains intact; four of the five nominees in this category, somehow, either involve a child in peril, or a child in the middle of a traumatic event, or, fuck it, a child just straight-up getting killed. There are two films about children getting killed here. That is, by I think any standard, a lot. And it’s part of what makes this, by a fairly big margin, the worst category at the Oscars this year.
Detainment (Vincent Lambe & Darren Mahon, Ireland/UK)
And while they’re all a lot, none of them is more than this true story about Jon Venables (Ely Solan) and Robert Thompson (Leon Hughes), ten-year-old boys who kidnapped and murdered two-year-old James Bulger (Caleb Mason) in Merseyside in 1993. The film consists of re-enactments of the taped police interrogations of the two boys, intercut with their flashbacks to the crime.
The film has attracted controversy: Bulger’s family was not in any way contacted prior to the making of the film, and since its Oscar nomination, they’ve raised quite a loud public complaint about the tastelessness of the film, requesting (fruitlessly) for it to be striken from the the awards. Given what this is, that’s not much more than a PR headache for some agency that needs to be okay with losing this Oscar, and that’s absolutely the least the film deserves. This is, not to put too fine a point on it, absolutely dreadful. Even setting aside the ethical issue of whether or not this is a tawdry way to dishonro the memory of Bulger, there’s very little point to any of this. Director Vincent Lambe may or may not have had some grand plan for what the hell this was about, but it’s buried underneath sheer tabloid pornography, lingering over descriptions of violence and shoving the camera right up into the young actors’ faces, watching them trying not to cry.
There is nothing revelatory here, other than the not-very-shocking discovery that humans can be cruel beyond imagination. Nor does the film offer any insights into the way that juvenile perpetrators of violent crimes are or are not like adult perpetrators. It’s just a filthy wallow in viciousness, made somehow more agonising by the extremely poor performances by the child actors – exactly the thing that you’d want a sensitive filmmaker to have cracked first, to make sure this could be told with as much nuance and care as possible. I got no sort of spectatorial pleasure or aesthetic engagement or anything from this film, other than a sense of repulsion, and though I’m nowhere close to having watched every film ever nominated for a competitive Oscar, I’m pretty sure this is the very worst one I’ve seen.
Fauve (Jeremy Comte & Maria Gracia Turgeon, Canada)
Merely unpleasant where Detainment was acutely repulsive, we have here the other dead child. That probably counts as a spoiler, but I’m sufficiently ill-disposed to this film – to most of these films, really – that I just don’t give a damn.
The story revolves around a pair of tween boys, Tyler (Félix Grenier) and Benjamin (Alexandre Perreault), who spend one summer afternoon doing what aimless boys will do: wandering around the countryside, investigating spaces that are clearly marked out as off-limits, playing practical jokes on each other and keeping score of who has tricked the other more times throughout the day. One of these practical jokes goes wrong, and goes wrong in a rather unpleasant, lingering way, that allows us to really just ponder the horror felt by each child as they confront their foolishness and lack of power in the middle of a hostile world where all is suffering.
I’m sure there’s some kind of point to this, though I do not myself see what it might possibly be. It’s just a lightly nasty, nihilistic glimpse of something terrible happening for no good reason. It is, at least, well-crafted nihilism: writer-director Jeremy Comte does excellent work with his child actors, first capturing something casually true about the way that bored boys meander through life, and then guiding them to impressive fits of panic and confusion. Late in the film, he and cinematographer Olivier Gossot capture some fantastic shots of an implacably grey, dry landscape, swallowing up the humans in a vast wasteland. Did I learn anything? No, I certainly did not. But it does, anyway, feel shorter than its 17 minutes.
Madre (Rodrigo Sorogoyen & María del Puy Alvarado, Spain)
And would you look at that? It’s a film that’s kind of not all that bad. Indeed, end it one shot earlier, and it’s my favorite of these nominees. Which means quite a bit, given that the film only consists of four shots; but the last one is very short.
The great majority of the film’s 19 minutes takes place, instead, in the second shot. There are two women, Marta (Marta Nieto), and her mother (Blanca Apilánez), and the film is happy to let you assume for the first little bit that this is the relationship indicated by the title, as they bicker about her dating life. In short order, that is complicated: Marta’s young son is on a camping trip with his father, and he calls – the son, that is – to tell her that his dad has apparently gone missing. Maybe he got lost returning from the car; maybe the boy just has an incomplete sense of time. At any rate, Marta slowly escalates from mildly alarmed to full-on panicking over the course of their conversation, as her mother tries to calmly suggest all the reasons that panic is very definitely not helpful in this moment.
Basically, this is just an exercise in instilling rising anxiety in the viewer, but it’s a terrific exercise. Both actors are superb in controlling their emotions very precisely over the course of a very long take, and Rodrigo Sorogoyen blocks them all across a very wide-open white apartment, and in an agonisingly empty anamorphic widescreen frame, so that their relationships in space contribute to their sense of helplessness. The camera is as restless and confused as Marta herself, spinning around and never quite being sure where to stand or where to look. It’s a tremendously involving, even nauseating experience.
Top-notch thriller filmmaking all-around, then. It’s a damn pity that the final shot comes along and lacquers it with European Art Film Ambiguity™. I mean, ambiguity is the point of the thing – we’re not really ever allowed to know for sure if Marta is right to be alarmed, or if this is just her flying off the handle. But there’s ambiguity that remains centered in the characters and the space they inhabit, and melancholic, third-person ambiguity, and Madre spins off in the wrong direction. Still an effectively visceral experience, but I was astonished by how much I could feel it deflating.
Marguerite (Marianne Farley & Marie-Hélène Panisset, Canada)
I’m sure it’s possible to hold the opinion that this isn’t objectively the best of the nominees, but I don’t really see what would push one to that opinion. As the only one of the five films that isn’t centered on the misery of children, it automatically stands out; as the only one that suggests that there exists in this world some glimmer of hope that any one of us might some day enjoy being alive in the company of other humans, it’s definitely the only one that’s even vaguely pleasurable to watch.
So, Marguerite (Béatrice Picard) is a lonely old lady dying of diabetes. Yes, I said this was the “hopeful” one. The thing is, Marguerite has a very nice nurse that comes to help her every day, Rachel (Sandrine Bisson), and this human contact is enough to bring a small spark of meaning and joy to the older woman’s life. This feeling intensifies, for reasons that I would say constitute a spoiler; let it suffice to say that Marguerite has spent her whole life needlessly restricting her ability to feel happiness, and Rachel’s presence serves as a catalyst to cause her to open up a bit, in a very small way.
It’s a very soft and gentle character drama with a clear message that it, happily, never sees fit to pound home. Aye, it’s never too late to open up and become your best self; no, writer-director Marianne Farley does not plan to slap us in the face with that, but merely allow it come up mildly through Picard’s quiet pleasure and nervous joy. It’s a perfect example of how to use the room of a short film to sketch out one emotional response by relying on the acting, and Farley’s hushed, dusky approach to the material gives Picard all the room she needs to react slowly and in generous close-ups. Elegantly simple, and if this even slightly points to how good of a director of actors Farley can be, I hope very much that this presages a long and active career.
Skin (Guy Nattiv & Jaime Ray Newman, USA)
And now we cycle back to the beginning, with a film about which the very best I can say is that I don’t think it’s as fundamentally rotten as Detainment. Though it is, like that film, absolutely incomprehensible that the filmmakers would imagine that this story could be told in this way, and that things like restraint or tact or basic human decency aren’t even really considerations, let alone priorities.
The story (which has already been turned into a feature-length film, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2018, and I cannot wait for it to be my least favorite movie of 2019) starts out as the story of beatific little Troy (Jackson Robert Scott), an adorable little boy being raised up to be a neo-Nazi skinhead by his loving father Johnny (Jonathan Tucker). One evening, an African-American man named Jaydee (Ashley Thomas) smiles at Troy in a grocery story, and this sets Johnny off: over the objections of Troy’s mom, Christa (Danielle Macdonald), Johnny chases Jaydee into the parking lot and beats the shit out of him, while Jaydee’s family watches, screaming, in a car.
Bold stuff, shocking stuff, stuff that isn’t handled very well at all. But this is merely scratching the surface of what makes Skin so profoundly objectionable. See, Jaydee’s friends and relations decide to get back at Johnny, and kidnap him, at which point the film undergoes a complete narrative break. Every bit of the film up to this point has been from Troy’s perspective; now it’s all from Johnny’s perspective, including during a beat at the very end that really ought to be from Troy’s perspective. But that’s not even the half of it. The particular form of the revenge taken against Johnny is complete fairy tale bullshit; Skin essentially turns into torture porn in this moment, watching as Johnny’s body is mutilated. What in God’s name we’re meant to make of it, I cannot fathom. Oh, there’s some dramatic irony, for sure (though not remotely enough for the game the filmmakers think they’re playing), and the film’s intended message is obvious, though I do not think it is the same as the film’s effective message. Really, though, I don’t know what writers Sharon Maymon and Guy Nattiv (the latter also directs) though they were doing by representing the African-American gang members as some kind of shadowy force from out of horror cinema, and trying to make it so that we exult, or at least somberly nod our heads, at Johnny’s suffering. Which is, like, not how movies work. We don’t vicariously share in the attack, but we also don’t really vicarously live through the suffering, so all that remains is a heavy through-line of unpleasant misery, culminating in an obvious sick joke. It’s a sour misfire that has absolutely nothing to say about racism in the actual world, only in the hapless knock-off of ’70s grind house mores that this film has in place of a mise en scène, and its absolutely bonkers incorproration of body horror goes so badly awry that I cannot fathom how the filmmakers ever thought it was going to work.
I mean, here it is, in contention for American cinema’s highest honor, but I’m still right.