Last year, I ran out of time and didn't have a chance to watch the Oscar nominated short films. This really bummed me out. The shorts are, by far, the most overlooked and underseen of all the nominees. These filmmakers deserve to have their hard work seen and appreciated. Luckily, this year I'm back on the ball and was able to see the nominated shorts. Here are my thoughts below.
"DeKalb Elementary" begins with a young white man entering a predominately black elementary school and pulling out an assault rifle. After that, things do not progress the way they often do in real life. Instead of firing, he clears out the office and tells the receptionist to call the police. He intends to open fire on the cops as soon as they arrive. The receptionist talks to the boy, quickly deducing that he's depressed and wants to end his own life. An odd relationship forms between the two, as the woman talks the boy through the day's events.
Considering the grim place "DeKalb Elementary" starts in, it ends up becoming a surprisingly touching film. Director Reed Van Dyk's presentation is stripped down and simple, rarely leaving the office and focusing on the two characters. This is primarily a two-hander. Bo Mitchell makes it clear that the shooter is emotionally frazzled, accurately depicting a scattered mind uncertain of his actions. Tarra Riggs, as the receptionist, beautifully brings to life an exceptionally compassionate person. The ability to extend love and understanding to other people is the main theme of the film and one it conveys powerfully. It's a tense film, due the threat of potential violence never being far off, and one that pays off in a touching way. The film is based on a true story but, in the wake of yet another mass shooting, plays out like a rather fantastical story: One where communication and compassion is stronger than anger, hate, and random violence. [9/10]
Chris Overton's "The Silent Child" follows Jo, a social worker invited by a rural English family to help their deaf daughter, Libby. Libby, who refuses to wear a hearing aid and can only partially read lips, observes her family silently and can not truly communicate with them. Jo teaches Libby sign language, the girl picking up on it quickly. The two form a bond soon enough. However, no one in the family understands sign language and are uncertain if this is a route worth exploring.
As a closing wall of text makes clear, "The Silent Child" is an issues movie. In this case, the issue is spreading awareness about sign language and the deaf. There's one really powerful shot in the film. From Libby's perspective, we see the girl looking at her family, living in a world of silence, distant from them and unable to communicate. Sadly, this is the only time "The Silent Child" takes us inside the girl's head. The relationship between Libby and her caretaker, though sweet and bolstered by strong performances from Rachel Shenton and Maisie Sly, always feels too manipulative. The parents' decision to discontinue their daughter's lessons strains believably, making mom and dad seem like clueless and abusive assholes for no reason. Though associated with a good cause, "The Silent Child" never makes the audience care about its characters, causing it to come off as an overly sappy heart-string tugger that doesn't earn the emotion it aims for. [5/10]
My Nephew Emmett
Race isn't just a reoccurring theme in the Best Picture race. "My Nephew Emmett" is inspired by the real life murder of Emmett Till. In 1950s Mississippi, elderly black man Moses Wright discovers that his fourteen year old nephew Emmett wolf-whistled at a white woman. In the middle of the night, two armed white men appear on Moses' door step. They enter the house and demand to take Emmett outside. The whole household is threatened with violence when Moses refuses to cooperate but the men soon find what they came for.
"My Nephew Emmett" is set in the same state as "Mudbound," similarly depicting a family torn apart by racism and violence. It's an intense twenty minutes. The short focuses on silence and darkness, as Moses waits for the men he knows are coming to appear. The confrontation between the racist killers and the peaceful black family is a queasy experience, racial epithets flying freely and the threat of violence always hanging in the air. Sadly, "My Nephew Emmett" is a bit undone by its short length. We only have a little bit of time to get to know the family, Moses and his nephew coming off more as thin sketches than fully fleshed out characters. Also do to being a short, the eventual outcome of the incident doesn't have much room to land before the end credits roll. Though well acted and effectively constructed, the film is not as powerful as its filmmakers clearly hoped it would be. [7/10]
The Eleven O'Clock
An Australian short, "The Eleven O'Clock" begins with a rather amusing set-up. A psychologist waits for his eleven o'clock patient to arrive. The patient is a man with delusions of grandeur who believes himself to be a psychologist. As he arrives in the office, a game of wits quickly begins to play out. The doctor and the patient have an argumentative back-and-forth, as each believes the other to be delusional.
It's pretty easy to figure out "The Eleven O'Clock's" twist ending. From the minute the premise is introduced, the audience is expecting the reveal. However, getting there is still a lot of fun. John Lawson, who also wrote the short, is really funny as the stuffy shrink. Damon Herriman, as his patient, is contrastingly absent-minded. Seeing the two play off each other produces plenty of laughter. Lawson's frustration at Herriman explaining simple concepts to him is amusing. A word association test quickly becomes a highly circular argument. The secretary's increasingly baffled reaction to everything that's happening got me chuckling. Though fairly simple in execution, "The Eleven O'Clock" is still a really funny thirteen minutes that I would recommend checking out. [7/10]
Watu Wote: All of Us
It seems like every year, there's at least one live action short about an African country torn apart by violence and war. "Watu Wote" is set on the border between Kenya and Somelia. Al-Shabaab, a Muslim terrorist sect, terrorizes and attacks Kenya's Christian population. The film follows a Christian woman who witnessed her husband and child murdered by the same terrorists. She boards a bus ride out of the country, driven by a Muslim. On the way out of Kenya, the bus is attacked by a group of Al-Shabaab terrorists. The woman is shocked to find the Muslim driver and passengers protecting her and the other Christian on-board.
I was happy to see"Watu Wote" is not self-serving misery porn like 2013's "That Wasn't Me." Instead, it's commanding piece of work against prejudice and persecution. It's refreshing to see a movie about Islamic terrorism that intentionally points out that extremist like Al-Shabaab are a minority. Watching the bus driver and passengers stand up for their fellow humans - a Muslim woman quickly placing the Christian in a burka, the driver questioning the attackers and pointing out that the Q'uran does not stand for thsi kind of violence - is genuinely touching. "Watu Wote" is well directed, full of tense direction and strong performances. It sets up the story, makes it important point, and then wraps up quickly. [7/10]