I haven’t seen a short film this year — and certainly not among the Oscar-nominated animated ones — that is as full of pure, unadulterated joy as “Hair Love.” I’d like to think that its sweet positivity will be the thing that, in this awful year of so much bad news and crushing pessimism, gives it an edge over the year’s other nominees: all very accomplished films telling very moving stories, but to a one so bleak that it breaks your heart.
The thoroughly delightful “Hair Love” [IMDb|official site] preceded theatrical presentations of The Angry Birds Movie 2 in the US and, among its many other delights, made that dumb movie worth buying a cinema ticket for. This is what I wrote back then:
It’s a little roller coaster of emotion, funny even about frustration, and at every moment full of a sweet joy about something seemingly mundane yet laden with significance. Backed by Kickstarter supporters and inspired by YouTube videos of African-American fathers doing their young daughters’ hair, filmmaker Matthew A. Cherry — who wrote and codirected with Everett Downing Jr. and Bruce W. Smith — has crafted a charming story about little Zuri, who has to wrangle her reluctant dad, Stephen, into helping her, for the first time ever, tame her unruly hair into a special style for a special day; Mom usually does this, but she’s not around today.
This is a wonderful celebration of natural black hair — some white people may not realize this has long been a vector along which black people have suffered discrimination, with many now championing natural hair — and a charming portrait of a lovely relationship between father and daughter. The poignant wallop it packs is wonderfully unforgettable.
The other nominees:
• “Dcera (Daughter)” [IMDb|official site], by Daria Kashcheeva, which I think is the other short that could possibly take the Oscar this year. Stunningly accomplished from a technical standpoint, this entry from the Czech Republic casts stop-motion-animated papier-mâché puppets in a father-daughter drama rendered extra poignant by Kashcheeva’s remarkable cinematography, which situates us deeply in the frame and hence firmly in its emotional midst, in a pseudo-documentary, near-verité style. Dialogue-free (and so subtitle-free, for those averse), this thus becomes a profoundly intimate meditation on our closest relationships, and on how sometimes we inevitably see past each other.
• “Kitbull” [IMDb|official site], by Rosana Sullivan, which comes to us via Pixar’s SparkShorts program, designed to discover new filmmakers and experiment with new techniques. Ironically, considering Pixar’s digital roots, this tale of a stray kitten and an abused dog who strike up a friendship on the streets is entirely hand-drawn; the bitterness of their existence outside the protection of human love, which neither seems to have ever known, is sharply captured in its spiky edges and flat colors. It cannot be an accident that our protagonists here are a black cat and a pitbull, two of the most unfairly maligned creatures among our closest animal friends. (Adopt rescue animals, folks!) The power of this one sneaks up on you; have a Kleenex ready.
• “Memorable” [IMDb|official site], from Bruno Collet, is a subtitled French story about an older artist suffering from dementia. Clay puppets animated via stop motion provide an impressionistic take on the fluidity of experience for someone adrift in their own mind, in their own life, and in their own memories.
• “Sister” [IMDb|official site], by Siqi Song, a junior model maker on Missing Link (also Oscar nominated), is a gently and unexpectedly fantastical consideration on siblinghood. A Chinese man looks back on his childhood with his incredibly annoying — but also really fun — little sister… and we come to appreciate that the occasional splashes of color amidst the near black-and-white animation of stop-motion felt puppets is indicative of something more mournful than mere melancholy reminiscing. This one is a real punch in the gut.
I want to note here that three of these five animated shorts films are directed by women. It is absolute nonsense that women aren’t interesting in making movies, or that women aren’t making movies. Half of all film-school students are female, and women are doing well at the shorts and documentary-feature level. It’s in making the leap to the lucrative and prestigious feature narrative level that women are being blocked. And not because they lack the drive or the talent or the desire to do that.