Each year since 2009 my wife Anne and I have paid a visit to Keystone Art Cinema, the only fully dedicated art-film theater in Indianapolis, to view the big-screen release of the Academy Award nominees for Best Live-Action Short Film and Best Animated Short Film. Results vary each time and aren’t always for all audiences, but we appreciate this opportunity to sample such works and see what the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences deemed worthy of celebrating, whether we agree with their collective opinions or not. We like to do both sets as a one-day double-feature date, which gives us time between showings to look around the fashion mall connected to the theater, gawk at clothing, grab snacks, and buy a new piece of cookware from Crate & Barrel.
First up: my rankings of this year’s five Live-Action Short Film nominees, from pretty-great to extra-greatest. Unlike some years, we didn’t grumble or nitpick a single nominee among the quintet. These may or may not be uploaded to your usual streaming services at the moment, but their availability should widen in the near future. Links are provided to official sites where available if you’re interested in more info. Enjoy where possible!
The Eleven O’Clock: In a sketch that’s like a Monty Python riff on What About Bob?, Josh Lawson (House of Lies, Superstore) writes and costars along with Damon Herriman (Justified) as dueling professionals in a psychiatrist’s office. One is there to provide treatment; the other, to receive treatment. One problem: both insist they’re the psychiatrist. The timing and mounting exasperation of both gentlemen is on point, particularly when it’s time for a word-association run-through that would make Abbott and Costello tear their hair out. It feels mean and unfair to rank the lone comedic short at the bottom, but the competition was fierce, and after awhile it became quite noticeable that the cameras studiously avoided close-ups of the diplomas on the walls and the photos on the desk lest they unravel the final punchline. (Anne saw it coming, but I didn’t. That’s a compliment to their sleight-of-hand.)
Dekalb Elementary: The playlist order was determined well before recent headline events, but kicking off the program with a short about a would-be mass shooter (Bo Mitchell from Eastbound and Down) was one heck of a way to grab the audience’s attention from the get-go. Inspired by an actual incident in Georgia, a guy walks into a school office, sets up base camp, and dismisses everyone but a receptionist (Tarra Riggs from Treme and The Help) who has to negotiate with the police via 911 on his behalf, a tricky high-wire that forces her to find her inner calm in the worst possible situation. We can see the stacking of the deck when the intruder’s mental health begins to strain, but as a final-year UCLA project from director Reed Van Dyk, it’s a riveting slow burn tinged with glimmers of hope and a perfect coda of the emotional release that comes when an active shooter situation is finally deactivated.
My Nephew Emmett: The indelible debut of writer/director/producer/college student Kevin Wilson, Jr., is based on the true story of the hours leading up to the 1955 murder of Emmett Till. For the horrible terrible misdeed of allegedly whistling at a married white woman while black, the young Mr. Till — a Chicago native who shouldn’t have had to worry about evil racist culture shock during his stay in deep-south Mississippi — finds himself dragged out of his aunt and uncle’s house in the middle of the night and carted off to his horrifying fate by her lawless macho relatives. But we experience the abduction through the eyes of the main characters, the aunt and uncle torn between standing up for what’s right, the attempted bargaining to sacrifice nobly in his place, and the long-term consequences of resistance in the South during that not-nearly-bygone-enough era. It’s a fitting companion piece to Dee Rees’ Mudbound, the Oscar-nominated Netflix film infused with the sorrows and souls of Till and far, far too many other victims like him.
On lighter notes, fans of the ’80s may be stoked to catch up with Jasmine Guy (A Different World) as Emmett’s aunt. Blink and you’ll also miss Charlie Talbert, the kid from the ’95 bullied-teen flick Angus, in a cameo as the town sheriff.
Watu Wote (“All of Us”): Out of Germany’s Hamburg Media School comes another sharp shock of a harrowing true story, this time about a 2015 incident in Kenya. When a group of Al-Qaeda adjuncts hijacked a bus and threatened to murder every Christian on board, one such woman’s life was saved when fellow Muslim passengers helped hide her in plain sight. At least one among the riders would sacrifice himself so that others might live. In a world where religions war upon each other, and sometimes denominations within the same religion are too eager to escalate their differences into bloodshed, it’s a heartfelt display of community, of the inherent power in teaming up against evil, and of the necessity of finding some common higher ground if we all want to continue the work we’re meant to do on this planet, rather than letting it spin apart and shatter. Costarring two of the former pirates from Captain Phillips, Faysal Ahmed and Barkhad Abdirahman — one still a rampaging gunman; the other, the complete opposite.
The Silent Child: Inspired by the final years of her own father’s life, UK writer/actor Rachel Shenton (Freeform’s Switched at Birth; the British soap Hollyoaks) stars as a tutor assigned the full-time task of working with a four-year-old deaf girl named Libby. Most of her days are spent staring at TV images she can’t hear, surrounded by family members who all hear perfectly fine but who can’t be bothered to devote the extra time and interaction with her that she needs. When lip-reading initially proves a no-go, an intensive foray into British Sign Language (which is not identical to our own ASL) opens a whole new world for the bright but neglected youngster and forges a bond like she’s never known before. Alas, what looks at first like a happy victory for home-schooling soon turns sour when a curriculum disagreement threatens her progress. Their confrontation hits a wall when Mum stands behind what has too often been one of the most untrue statements throughout the course of human history at far too many saddening points: “I’m her mother and I know what’s best for her.”
The short ends on an abrupt PSA note, but its message is worth engaging. It wouldn’t have been possible without the prodigy at the heart of the matter. Maisie Sly was age five when The Silent Child was filmed, but displays a greater skill set than some overpaid pros. As little Libby lost, Miss Sly captures the forlorn isolation of being the only deaf person in a room full of listeners who won’t listen, the wide-eyed joy of learning and the horizons it brings within reach, and the numbing wounds of a misguided parent who can too easily make everything worse. The young lady is a precocious talent to watch, and I trust she’ll have better future opportunities than not-so-fictional Libby might.