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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

Oscar Nominated Live Action Shorts 2018 (90th Academy Awards) review

Oscar Nominated Live Action Shorts green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

My pick: I think the quietly shocking “DeKalb Elementary” [pictured] may win for its very of-the-moment story about a school office worker’s attempt to de-escalate an invading gunman’s rage via patience and empathy.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

The power of film to move the needle on contentious topics of cultural debate could not possibly be on better display in the films nominated for the Oscar for Best Live Action Short… unless all five of them, instead of merely four, tackled serious matters with such social-justice-warrior ferocity. The one outlier here, though, is a very welcome light distraction.

The nominated films these year are all so strong that it’s difficult to pick an indisputable front-runner. But I think the quietly shocking “DeKalb Elementary” [IMDb|official site], by writer-director Reed Van Dyk, may well have gained an ironic edge when reality — in the form of the Parkland, Florida, school shooting, and the new public outrage that accompanied it — underscored its story right in the middle of the Oscar-voting period. This is a simple, heartstopping dramatization of the real-life events in a school when an office worker attempted to talk down an armed gunman… and all of it was captured in a recording of a 911 call. Cassandra (Tarra Riggs: The Help) has just taken over manning the phones when Steven (Bo Mitchell: Palo Alto) walks in, removes a rifle from his bag, and threatens to start shooting up the place. Her calm under the most extreme of duress and her empathy for the gunman is a formidable counterargument to the bombast from certain quarters about arming teachers in order to meet such violence with more violence: Cassandra de-escalates a volatile situation by acting as a go-between, via the 911 operator, for Steven and the police who gather outside, and by approaching a damaged soul with patience and understanding. The film is also a tribute to the underappreciated emotional labor women do, and the underappreciated holding-the-world’s-shit-together work that black women, as Cassandra is, do. [watch at Amazon US|Amazon UK|iTunes US|iTunes Can|iTunes UK]

women’s participation in this film (learn more about this)
male director, male screenwriter, female protagonist

“Watu Wote (All Of Us)”

“Watu Wote (All Of Us)”

“Watu Wote (All Of Us)” [IMDb|official site] also centers a black woman; her story is very different, yet also still deeply moving in its message of compassion and principled refusal to descend into brutality. (Written by Julia Drache and directed by Katja Benrath, this one is also based on recent true events.) Jua (Adelyne Wairimu) must take a long bus trip from Nairobi into the hinterlands, via a route that is frequently targeted by Al-Shabaab terrorists; along the way, their police escort — an unfortunate necessity — falls by the wayside because of mechanical problems, leaving the bus and its passengers very vulnerable. That tension only exacerbates the general strain between Muslims and Christians that has been plaguing the country; Jua, a Christian, has reason not to trust Muslims, and it makes for an unpleasant trip, which includes an uncomfortable overnight stop. This is a beautifully pitched portrait of how mistrust and bigotry diminish us, and the ways in which our expectations of others can be upended in surprising ways that reaffirm our common humanity. [watch at Amazon US|Amazon UK|iTunes US|iTunes Can|iTunes UK]

women’s participation in this film
female director, female screenwriter, female protagonist

“The Silent Child”

“The Silent Child”

The absolutely heartbreaking “The Silent Child” [IMDb|official site], directed by Chris Overton, was also inspired by real life, and also engages in some much-needed advocacy in another uphill battle: that of the accessibility of the world for people with disabilities. It’s an unusual sort of bigotry on display here, one that many of us who aren’t personally touched by the issue may not even be aware of. (I certainly wasn’t.) Little Libby is profoundly deaf in a well-off English family, all of whom can hear, none of whom can be bothered to learn sign language so that they can communicate with her. Mom Sue (Rachel Fielding) insists that Libby — played by Maisie Sly, who is actually deaf — can lip-read and is doing just fine, but she’s giving signing teacher Joanne (Rachel Shenton, who also wrote the script) a tryout, just for funsies. Libby had been a sullen, bratty child, which is hardly surprising, but she blossoms under Joanne’s tutelage… and under her first real understanding of the larger world, and her first real friendship. Libby’s family never seemed to have much time for her, but might Sue be starting to get jealous of her small daughter’s relationship with the interloper? Will she allow Joanne to continue to teach Libby? There are hints of The Miracle Worker here, in the joy that both student and teacher take in each other, and in the opening up of the student’s perspective, except Joanne does not have to invent any techniques for connecting with Libby: there’s nothing even radical or mysterious about Libby’s needs or how to meet them. It’s purely the prejudice of others that must be overcome. And that is never an easy task. [watch at Amazon US|Amazon UK|iTunes US|iTunes Can|iTunes UK]

women’s participation in this film
male director, female screenwriter, female protagonist

“My Nephew Emmett”

“My Nephew Emmett”

Another true story, another heartbreak: “My Nephew Emmett” [IMDb|official site], written and directed by Kevin Wilson Jr., is perhaps the most technically accomplished of these five films. Beautifully photographed, with the weight of abiding horror in its dour sepia tones, it is the ugly tale of the night teenager Emmett Till (Joshua Wright), visiting his family in Mississippi from Chicago, was kidnapped, tortured, and murdered by white men in August 1955. It’s all seen from the perspective of Till’s uncle, Mose Wright (L.B. Williams), who was not present at the killing, and so we are spared that brutality. Instead, we share the brutality of Mose’s resigned awareness of what is in the offing for the brash boy when their home is invaded and Emmett is taken. Even before then, Mose seems lost in a funereal daze, as if he is experiencing a premonition of what’s to come… as if, perhaps, the boy’s fate was sealed from the moment he stepped into a South that was a long way from catching up with the relative progressiveness of Chicago. This one is all about mood, and it is not a pleasant or comfortable one at all. But it’s a mood that demands attention and appreciation, of the psychological oppression of entrenched racism. [watch at Amazon US|Amazon UK|iTunes US|iTunes Can|iTunes UK]

women’s participation in this film
male director, male screenwriter, male protagonist

“The Eleven O’Clock”

“The Eleven O’Clock”

Finally, for a refreshing blast of Monty Python–esque comic absurdity, right down to its 1970s setting and visual palette, there is “The Eleven O’Clock” [IMDb], directed by Derin Seale. Two men (Josh Lawson [The Little Death], who also wrote the script, and Damon Herriman [The Water Diviner]) meet in a psychiatrist’s office: one is the doctor, and the other is a patient who suffers from the irrational misapprehension that he is a psychiatrist. But which is which? This is pure delight, a pas de deux of rapid-fire nonsense in which the two men battle it out verbally, sending up both therapy and delusion in a way that never takes inappropriate knocks to the mentally ill but does delve into cinematic realms of paranoia and self-doubt in a way that might be sinister if it wasn’t just so plain existentially silly. This one may very well clinch the Oscar merely for being such a wonderful distraction of absolutely no social relevance whatsoever in an otherwise very heavy lineup. And that would be fine. [watch at Amazon US|Amazon UK|iTunes US|iTunes Can|iTunes UK]

women’s participation in this film
male director, male screenwriter, male protagonist

See ShortsTV’s official site for the Oscar-nominated shorts to find cinemas showing this program.

Click here for my ranking of this and 2018’s other theatrical releases.

green light 5 stars

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Oscar Nominated Live Action Shorts 2018 (90th Academy Awards) (2018) | directed by Reed Van Dyk, Katja Benrath, Chris Overton, Kevin Wilson Jr., Derin Seale
US/Can release: Feb 09 2018
UK/Ire release: Mar 04 2018

MPAA: not rated
BBFC: not rated

viewed at home on PR-supplied physical media or screening link

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Rotten Tomatoes

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