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.
Unfortunately a change in circumstances and an issue of lousy showtimes led to us shaking up our tradition this year. We both attended a showing of the Best Animated Short Film nominees, but Anne missed out on the Best Live-Action Short Film nominees. My son tagged along in her place and share in what he later described as “a day-ruining experience”. Not that the shorts were awful per se, but the nominating committee and/or this year’s filmmakers went super dark. They weren’t quite as appalling as past incidents when Live-Action Short Film nominees have sprung an occasional grueling rape scene on us, but one in particular is more emotionally scarring than any of this year’s eight Best Picture nominees. Fair warning to anyone who decides to casually check these out when they’re available online February 19th.
And now, we present our ranking of this year’s five nominees, four of which center on the subject of children killing or being killed. Um, enjoy?
Skin: Life is good for an ordinary average tattoo-covered no-class weapons-loving hyper-violent white-supremacist young American family until one day when dear old Dad decides it’s time for him and his shootin-‘n’-drinkin’ buddies to show his kid how hate crimes can be all fun and games. As the victim’s horrified family looks on helplessly (counting among their number young actor Lonnie Chavis, a.k.a. li’l flashback-Randall from NBC’s This Is Us), Mom calmly and without raising an eyebrow takes Future Hate-Monger Junior back to the car and they go on their way as if that’s a typical Tuesday night for them. Little do they know the victim has powerful and imaginative friends willing to exact a kind of ironic revenge straight out of Tales from the Crypt.
The depiction of evil as a casual family lifestyle is an eye-opening fright in itself, but loses some power with the quasi-fantasy shock ending that would have the Crypt-Keeper going “Wow, that’s dark,” and he’d be too aghast to realize he’d just punned again but not up to his usual standards. At this point I could drop ten or fifteen far worse puns befitting his old hosting gig, but they’re all spoilers so I’ll contain myself. If the Moral of the Story is that we can’t begin to guess what sort of damage that our inherited hatreds will inflict upon ourselves, then mission accomplished, albeit a bit too heavy-handedly.
Madre (“Mother”): Life is good for an ordinary divorced Spanish mother until she receives a call from her six-year-old son, who’s alone at the beach and has no idea where his dad is. Shot almost entirely as a showy single-take tracking shot, director Rodrigo Sorogoyen’s methodical style exercise unfolds with a creeping confidence and lures the viewer into its clutches as Mom slowly loses her calm and things on the other end of the line keep getting worse. Points deducted for the ambiguous ending, which requires the viewer to write their own climax despite maybe one (1) clue to extrapolate from at best, giving the proceedings more of a Chapter One feel, like this was just a sneak preview and we should look forward to paying to watch the rest on some obscure streaming service.
Fauve: Two young boys go roughhousing around a dirt mine in a boys-will-be-boys pranking competition until a danger is underestimated, one cries wolf, and everything goes horribly wrong. Bleak industrial desolation pervades the dirt piles and mud pits and complements the hard lesson about what happens when you don’t taking your surroundings seriously, and the helplessness and guilt that engulf us when we have to watch friends suffer. It’s actually a great metaphor for life on the internet sometimes, but that’s me reading too much into it. It sounds like the most depressing of the five shorts but it somehow isn’t, because that’s the state of artists’ mindsets today, apparently.
Marguerite: The only nominee to feature no kids and no murdering nonetheless proceeds at first with a mournful tone, borne of regret for what might have been. Days pass slowly and repetitively for an elderly lady whose lone source of comfort is the nice young nurse who visits her every day. When their chats turn to love and relationships, the missed opportunities of yesteryear and the hopes of modern today frame two very different experiences with bittersweet delicacy and a kind of emotional closure that many in her shoes never achieved in their lifetimes.
This is the closest we get to an “inspirational” entry in the category this year, and for the life of me I don’t know why the producers didn’t end the theatrical five-pack program with this one so the audience might leave on a high note instead of in a death march of suicidal despair at how the children that we once believed were our future are actually being groomed into our annihilators.
Detainment: Speaking of abject horror: once upon a time in 1993, two 10-year-old Irish lads capped off a day of shopping mall shenanigans by murdering a 2-year-old for reasons ultimately unknown to this day. Writer/director Vincent Lambe reopened old wounds and invoked the wrath of a nation that still declared it “too soon” to tell the story of what the film calls “the youngest murderers of the twentieth century”.
Two sets of policemen in two different towns (including three background players from Game of Thrones) each interrogate the boys separately. One is bold, cold, and feigning indignation that he’s being picked on, probably the same treatment he receives at school and most likely not undeserved. The other boy is seemingly more ordinary until a scant glimmer of conscience convinces him to begin telling some truths — as many as his brain can psychologically handle, anyway. Each boy undergoes denial, then blames the other, then confesses new details one millimeter at a time, then circles back around to denial as their own actions become too much for them to comprehend. To say nothing of the poor parents who legally have to sit there and listen and wonder where they’ve gone disastrously wrong as they endure the worst day of their lives…which is, to be fair if cruel, absolutely nothing compared to the victim’s final hours.
Based on the harrowing true story as recounted and sorted in the original interview transcripts, the film doesn’t dare depict the crime itself, many of the bloodier bullying events that preceded it, or the final stages that were never litigated in their trials because they were deemed more than a jury could handle. Per the film’s closing texts, it was decided they had more than enough charges and evidence for long-term convictions based on what was revealed. It’s extremely rare for a true-crime tale to stop midway through and announce, “That’ll do,” but’s hard to do otherwise when the court itself declared exactly that.
Lambe could have invented a climax for drama’s sake, perhaps crafted a conclusion more to everyone’s liking at the risk of warping what really happened into something more movie-shaped. (See also: Bohemian Rhapsody, Green Book, and any number of nominees in other categories that played fast and loose with reality.) As he states in an online essay, “While the film is a dramatisation, it is entirely fact-based with no embellishments whatsoever.” As the cameras continue rolling beyond the questioning, we see the killers’ palpable anguish at incarceration and at the incomprehension of their actions and consequences, but Lambe stops short of sympathizing. The emotional turmoil of two kids arrested on adult charges pales in the face of the reminders that their funny games were as the handiwork of monsters.
None of this would’ve worked beyond the level of basic-cable cheesiness if not for the tightly edited structure that weaves past and present and revelations and revulsions into such a tight tapestry, and if not for the surety of the actors involved. Of particular note is Ely Solan as the more persuadable of the duo. In the space of twenty minutes he devolves from a quietly naughty child to a hysterical and wildly guilty suspect. The boy’s eventual breakdown is not undeserved and is the closest we get to a sense of retribution, but one has to wonder how the young actor within could possibly sustain — or survive — such an intense performance.
Detainment is the kind of devastating work one may not want to experience twice, but it left a deeper mark on my psyche than any of this year’s Best Picture nominees. It’s this sort of effort that the Live-Action Short Film category was created to recognize and amplify in the first place. I’m glad the Academy rethought and canceled their short-sighted decision to shunt “boring” categories (read: categories without any nominees in the ABC/Disney corporate structure) into the commercial breaks, the mannerly equivalent of seating auditorium guests behind load-bearing poles. I look forward to watching the winner(s) take the stage next Sunday, whomever they might be and regardless of how much child endangerment they had to contemplate in the process.