The live-action shorts that the Academy tends to nominate consistently veer towards the serious. Very serious. More and more so over the last few years. The subjects tend to be hot button issues like child murder, kidnapping, racism, bullying, and repressed sexuality. And those were just last year’s nominees. This year’s slate is exceedingly serious as well. They’re all a little dour, but at least they find pockets of hope in the telling.
NEFTA FOOTBALL CLUB (France)
The best of the lot this season is French writer/director Yves Piat’s story about two young boys in Tunisia who make a dramatic discovery. While riding on their moped to a dusty playground to join classmates for a game of football, Mohammed (Elatayef Dhaoui) and his younger brother Abdallah (Mohamed Ali Ayari) come upon a stray donkey out in the desert. The boys stop to investigate and find him loaded down with packets of white powder. Mohammed knows it’s drugs, but he tells his gullible sibling it’s mere laundry detergent. Soon, the two boys are heading back home with the drugs in tow, while the two owners of the drug mule wander the sands looking for their animal.
What makes this short so effective is its clever mix of emotions. There’s palpable tension when Mohammed tries to sell the stash to a couple of shady adults, yet the film buttresses light-hearted comedy right up against such dramatics. The scenes with the hapless Abdallah, who has his own ideas on what to do with the detergent, edge right up towards slapstick. Yet it all works. Spectacularly.
Usually, Academy shorts with a backdrop of drugs are harrowing. This one is quite hilarious. And it ends on one beauty of a sight gag that is one of the best closing shots of any film this year, long or short.
BROTHERHOOD (a co-production from Canada, Tunisia, Qatar, and Sweden)
A second short takes place in Tunisia and it’s written and directed by Meryam Joobeur. Tensions come to a head in the story when a young man returns home to his Tunisian family with his new Syrian bride. The brooding father (Mohamed Graaya) suspects that his son has joined ISIL and is most unwelcoming to the couple. He doesn’t like that she’s dressed in oppressive full niqab, and he’s already in a mood because one of his farm’s sheep was slaughtered by a roaming wolf. Strong symbolism, certainly, although it is a bit on-the-nose.
This dark and gloomy 25-minute short won the award for Best Canadian Short at TIFF this past fall, but it might have trouble persuading Academy voters who will likely find this as bleak as it’s intended to be. Still, it’s very effective filmmaking.
A SISTER (Belgium)
Filmmaker Delphine Girard has delivered a simple and taut tale about a kidnapping. Lasting only 16 minutes, we discover a terrified passenger (Selma Alaoui) in the backseat of a car, trying to negotiate with her kidnapper (Guillaume Duhesme) who is driving at night. She doesn’t have much standing but nonetheless peppers her captor with a request to call her sister. The woman explains it will actually help his getaway because it should lull her sister into complacence knowing all is well.
After a great deal of back and forth, her kidnapper finally relents. The woman, however, doesn’t call her sis. Instead, she dials up the 911 operator and proceeds to try to persuade her “in code” to call the cops. It’s shrewd, audacious, and nerve-wracking. Just like it was intended to be.
Based on a real-life incident at a Guatemalan orphanage in 2017, director Bryan Buckley’s 23-minute short is both terrifying and heartbreaking. A plucky and opinionated orphan teen named Saria (Estefania Tellez) doesn’t like being bullied by the male and female guards at the sanctuary. She figures that the safe home is anything but since it’s overrun with bugs, decay, and rapes happening left and right. Thus, Saria and her friends develop an ambitious plan to escape.
Their scheming involves staging a protest, a fake cafeteria fight, and a quick run into the nearby woods. After that, it’s 100 miles to the USA, but they’re brave and determined. Buckley does stellar work with this big and ambitious short.
THE NEIGHBORS’ WINDOW (USA)
Writer/director Marshall Curry’s dramedy is based on a true story that gained popularity on the podcast The Living Room a few years back. A married couple became obsessed with spying on their neighbors across the way when they discovered they enjoyed a very active sex life. Curry took that idea and turned it into a very clever riff on Hitchcock’s REAR WINDOW here.
Alli (Maria Dizzia) and her husband Jacob (Greg Keller) play the voyeurs, reveling in the chance to watch how the other half lives. Being parents to two children and a newborn has left them exhausted and too tired for sex. Thus, the uninhibited sex life of the two hotties across the way serves as an avatar for the life they wish they led.
Months pass but their interest in watching the couple doesn’t wane. Alli, in particular, seems to need it to survive. It’s about the only thing that jazzes her anymore. Dizzia is always expert at playing such dour downers. (Remember her whiny performance – “Pleeeeeze get blueberries” – on Louis CK’s LOUIE television series?) She’s funny here, sad too, and eminently relatable.
Director Curry blends pathos and comedy exceedingly well, never letting the New York couple become too caricatured. And despite all the angst, this short’s ending is feel-good positive and might just give it the edge to take the Oscar gold. The other one most likely in contention for the win is NEFTA FOOTBALL CLUB. It’s the most accessible of the shorts this year, and the other one that ends on a distinctively upbeat note.
The Academy’s live-action shorts are presently showing in select theaters across the nation, and after the Oscars are given out on Sunday, both the animated and live-action shorts will be available on numerous VOD platforms including Apple TV and Amazon.
I reviewed the five animated shorts earlier this week and you can read my thoughts on them here at Creative Screenwriting magazine online.