2016 Oscar-Nominated Live-Action Shorts, by David Bax
This year’s crop of Oscar-nominated live-action shorts looks a lot like those of most other years. In general, what that means is they po-faced, issue-centric morality tales and mini-tragedies with the Academy-approved dash of uplift. There are two exceptions, though – one a comedy and one very much not – that I hope battle it out for the prize.
The aforementioned comedy, Basil Khalil’s “Ave Maria,” does bear some of the markings of the Third World Difficulties sub-genre the Oscar voters like to highlight in this category. But by treating its themes with sardonic and occasionally farcical humor, its impact is felt all the more. When an Israeli family (a married coupe and the husband’s wheelchair-bound mother), driving through Palestine and bickering, crash their car into a convent, comic difficulties start to pile up as these Jews and Christians struggle to resolve the situation in a land where neither group is especially popular. Khalil makes fun of the lack of communication among religious groups in the area. The sisters have taken a vow of silence and, as the sun sets and Shabbat begins, the family is unable to operate the phone. Simply negotiating who is going to call a tow truck or taxi sets tempers ablaze hilariously on both sides. Eventually, though, hope prevails, or at least a patchwork version of it is constructed to get everyone through the day.
Jamie Donoughue’s “Shok,” on the other hand, doesn’t have much use for hope at all. This grim tale of the friendship between two Albanian boys and their interactions with local Serbs during the 1990s Kosovo war is well-photographed by cinematographer Philip Robertson but marred by bad child acting. Its only hook is that it makes us wonder how exactly we’re going to get to the precise downer ending we know is coming from the first scene. The film earns its title with the gut-punch finale but that shock also cheapens the impact.
At 30 minutes, the longest nominee is Patrick Vollrath’s “Alles Wird Gut,” or “Everything Will Be Okay.” Luckily, it’s also the best. Unlike “Shok,” we don’t at first see where this story is going. When a divorced father picks up his daughter for a weekend visit, the only sign of trouble is that he doesn’t speak to or even look at his ex-wife, which is probably not that big a red flag. But, as the day progresses, it starts to dawn on us what he has planned. Each new step ticks up the tension ever more. Vollrath dispenses information with economy so that we begin to understand what’s happening before the little girl does. That tactic plus the stellar performance from young Julia Pointner increases our sympathy for her while Vollrath’s frantic jump cuts put us in the racing mind of the father, even as he continues to behave as if everything is fine.
Benjamin Cleary’s thin “Stutterer” also attempts to place us inside the psyche of another person. In fact, it’s at its best when relaying the day to day difficulties of living with a severe speech impediment. But making the protagonist a professional typesetter seems overly pointed and the end is unforgivably corny, especially as it wastes the talents of actress Chloe Pirrie from Youth and the BBC miniseries The Game.
As much as I want it not to be true, my cynical gut tells me that Henry Hughes’ “Day One” may walk away with the award. It’s the story of a particularly rough first day at a new job. As familiar as that may seem, the job in question here belongs to Feda (Layla Alizada), an Afghani woman just hired to be the new interpreter for a team of American troops. The day starts with altitude sickness on a mountain hike, followed by the explosion of an IED and finally culminating in her having to help the wife of a suspected insurgent deliver her baby. As that description suggests, it’s unceasingly manipulative and only flirts with true darkness to make its manufactured uplift bigger by comparison