Perhaps reflecting the pervasive air of angst and unease that seemed to have gripped the globe throughout much of the last year, 2018’s Oscar-nominated live-action short films are a collection of bleak melodramas, three of them based in fact, mercifully punctuated by a lone comedy. It’s a slate that delivers some powerful filmmaking, several noteworthy performances and a truckload of social significance. It’s an unusually strong grouping in comparison to last year, and I really don’t have a solid fix on who will win.
DeKalb Elementary. Director: Reed Van Dyk. Country: USA. 21 minutes. The Academy has always loved topicality, and Van Dyk’s De Kalb Elementary manages to touch on race relations, our nation’s deficient mental health resources and mounting fears of police violence all in one incredibly tense two-person school shooting narrative. The action, staged entirely in an elementary school reception office, centers on a mentally disturbed young man (East Bound and Down’s Bo Mitchell) whose attempt to commit suicide by cop can only be thwarted by his compassionate hostage, played by Tarra Riggs. Riggs, in particular, is revelatory, and the film packs a remarkable degree of suspense into its brief running time.
My Nephew Emmett. Director: Kevin Wilson Jr. Country: USA. 20 minutes. Based on the true story of the 1955 lynching of Emmett Till as told from the perspective of his great-uncle Mose Wright (L.B. Williams), My Nephew Emmett is a surprisingly stylish and evocative piece of work — rendered all the more impressive by the fact that director Wilson is still a student at NYU. His moody lighting and pensive camera underplay the significance of the tragedy we’re watching unfold, and a gut-wrenching performance from Williams renders this methodically paced think piece a strong underdog contender for the win.
The Eleven O’Clock. Directors: Derin Seale and Josh Lawson. Country: Australia. 13 minutes. Easily my favorite of this year’s nominees — and therefore unlikely to win, based on experience — Seale and Lawson’s The Eleven O’Clock is effectively a drawn-out Laurel and Hardy bit, as a psychologist prepares to meet a new patient — one who believes himself to be a psychologist. Which is which? The reveal may feel somewhat perfunctory, but the point here is a series of rapid-fire jokes that ascend to a near Marxian anarchy. Hilarious, insightful and a perfect use of the constraints of short-form narrative, this film justifies the price of admission on its own.
The Silent Child. Director: Chris Overton. Country: UK. 20 minutes. Although this is another of the 2018 films focused on social issues, The Silent Child avoids sensationalizing hot-button topics in favor of delivering a message that may be far from the forefront of the collective unconscious but nonetheless remains every bit as pertinent as its ripped-from-the-headlines competition. The story, penned by star Rachel Shenton, follows a passionate young social worker committed to helping the deaf child of an upper-crust British family who are too self-absorbed to realize the severity of their young daughter’s predicament. Shenton is all pathos and optimism, confronted with the implacable ignorance of a negligent mother (Rachel Fielding) hellbent on keeping up appearances, and the results are truly heartbreaking. It’s a particularly moving piece of filmmaking, staged and shot to look like a prestige drama and ably carried by Shenton and her surprisingly affective child co-star, Maisie Sly.
Watu Wote (All of Us). Director: Katja Benrath. Country: Germany and Kenya. 22 minutes. Possibly the least accomplished piece of filmmaking of the lot is Benrath’s Watu Wote, a tense thriller based on the harrowing real-life journey of Kenyan Christians who were protected by their Muslim co-passengers when their bus is hijacked by Al-Shebab militants in 2012. It’s an unquestionably compelling story, but Benrath’s awkward pacing and uninspired visual style fail to do her subject justice. Even as the weakest entry int this year’s field, it’s still pretty good. Not Rated.
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