As is often the case, the 2018 Oscar competitors for Documentary Short are socially minded across the board. This year, however, they’re not entirely, unrelentingly depressing. Don’t get me wrong — they’re more than depressing enough, but there’s the faintest glimmer of hope around some of the margins to qualify as a slight improvement over last year’s slate. Also differentiating this year from last is the odd fact that all of the nominees are from the U.S. — go figure. It’s pretty bleak stuff, but a particularly strong grouping that warrants your undivided attention. This year’s Documentary Shorts are divided into two programs for exhibition.
Edith and Eddie. Directors: Laura Checkoway and Thomas Lee Wrights. Country: USA. 29 minutes. What starts out like a quirky, Vernon, Florida.-era Errol Morris piece takes a dark turn into elder abuse when late-in-life newlyweds are forcibly separated. Edith and Eddie, who met in their mid-90s over a shared lotto prize and fell instantly in love, find their December-December romance rent asunder by one of Edith’s daughters, money-hungry and looking to flip the couple’s Northern Virginia home for a quick buck. Things do not improve from there, and the legal “guardian” secured by Edith’s daughter will enrage anyone who’s ever gotten the short end of the bureaucratic stick. In short, it’s depressing.
Traffic Stop. Directors: Kate Davis and David Heilbroner. Country: USA. 30 minutes. This doc, following a routine traffic stop that escalates into an abuse of police authority perpetrated against 26-year-old African-American schoolteacher from Austin, Texas, was not screened in advance for critics. That most likely means it’s either very good or distinctly not-so-good. Thanks for nothing, HBO.
Heaven Is a Traffic Jam on the 405. Director: Frank Stiefel. Country: USA. 40 minutes.The title here is a bit misleading, as this is no more a doc about traffic than Traffic Stop. Instead, this is a gut-wrenching portrait of Mindy Alper, a middle-age woman suffering from a debilitating mental illness who also happens to be an incredibly talented painter and sculptor. One of the more polished of this year’s entries, watching Mindy’s struggle to salvage some sort of functional future from a traumatic past isn’t rendered any easier by the film’s slick production. A victim of both a difficult childhood and our society’s medicate-first, ask-questions-later approach to mental illness, the only redemptive possibilities for Mindy come in the form of a kind therapist and some very supportive art teachers. And thank God that slightest of optimistic streaks is present in this film because Mindy’s difficulties with her meds — and her deep antipathy toward warehouse stores — hit too close to home for me.
Heroin(e). Directors: Elaine McMillion Sheldon and Kerrin Sheldon. Country: USA. 39 minutes. Netflix’s entry is the presumptive front-runner for this year’s award, not only for its highly professional execution, but also for its poignant topicality. Examining the effects of the opioid epidemic in the small town of Huntington, W.Va. — a hamlet whose only superlative is being the overdose capital of the state — the Sheldons’ cameras follow the people trying to turn the overwhelming tide and save lives. It’s potentially the most hopeful of this year’s entries, but not without a hefty dose of human suffering. I mean, could it even have been nominated if it didn’t make me question the ultimate fate of humanity at least a couple of times?
Knife Skills. Director: Thomas Lennon (not that Thomas Lennon). Country: USA. 40 minutes. Another quasi-hopeful film in this year’s slate, this doc following an experimental fine-dining restaurant in Cleveland that is entirely staffed by ex-cons feels a bit like an overlong and slightly pompous episode of Kitchen Nightmares, but not exactly in a bad way. It’s pretty predictable, and its hope-adjacency is marred by the fact that the guy running this joint seems like an absolute sociopath (and I question the validity of his assertion that there’s a high demand for French cuisine in Cleveland). Still, it prompts some important questions about what our “rehabilitation” system actually accomplishes, if anything, and offers a seemingly viable escape plan from the relentless cycle of prison recidivism.
Not Rated. Opens Friday at Grail Moviehouse.