The 2020 Oscar-Nominated Live Action Short Films: Weight, What?, by Josh Long

Short films! You don’t usually watch them unless they’re nominated for an Academy Award, or if one of your friends made one. Fortunately for you, it’s Oscar season, so you’re likely falling into the first category. Here’s the breakdown of the live action offerings for 2019.

A Sister (Une Soeur)

“Une Soeur” starts off with propulsive energy – the dark view out the windshield of a moving car. A man driving, a woman in the passenger seat. She tells him she needs to call her sister to take care of the baby. We hear a little bit of an innocuous phone conversation. Then we cut, seemingly inexplicably, to an emergency call center. When we hear both sides of the conversation, we see that the woman on the other end is not the sister, but a woman from emergency services. The woman in the car is being driven somewhere against her will, and makes a desperate attempt to explain her situation over the phone without tipping off her assailant. As we watch the two women try to communicate, the tension builds, and we wonder if there’s any chance of a rescue attempt, or if the man will catch on. It’s a clever concept, and well executed. An effective little mini-thriller about women reaching out to help each other.

Brotherhood

“Brotherhood” is heavy drama, centering around a family on a small Tunisian farm. The oldest of three brothers returns to the family after running away to fight with ISIS in Syria. Perhaps the most distressing part of his return is that he brings a pregnant fourteen-year-old wife home with him. His father disapproves strongly of the decisions his son has made, and wants him to leave. The boy’s mother is more compassionate, even if she too feels uncomfortable with the situation. However, the three brothers are still close, and fall back into work and play together. The oldest reveals to the others that he made a mistake in going to Syria. Later, the parents find out that their son is not the father of the young girl’s child; in fact, he rescued her from being forced into “marriage” with many ISIS fighters. But before this information had come to light, the angry father had made a call to turn his son in to the police. He tries to warn them, but it may be too late. There’s a lot going on in this story, more than you might expect from a short. The performances are strong, the dramatic beats land effectively, and it’s shot beautifully (in 4:3 ratio, which is a surprising, if not an inspired choice).

NEFTA Football Club

The second film for this year’s shorts set in Tunisia, this one is of lighter fare. It’s a comedy about two young boys who stumble across a mule in the wilderness carrying heroin across the border. The older of the two boys wants to try and sell it to some thugs in town, but before he can, his younger brother takes the bags of drugs out to his friends at their local soccer field. The younger boy thinks the bags are full of laundry detergent, so he and his friends find a better use for the white powder – new lines for their soccer field. It’s a cute premise, and intentionally sidesteps any questions about crime, kids and drugs, retribution from drug smugglers, etc. The short may be a little long to be built around essentially one gag, but it’s a payoff that leaves you with a smile.

Saria

If sexual assault, kidnapping, and teenage ISIS brides weren’t dark enough for you, don’t worry. “Saria” is a true story about young girls in a Guatemalan orphanage who are routinely raped, plan an escape, are caught and beaten as they’re taken captive again, then burned alive inside a locked room. The story is told through the eyes of two sisters in the orphanage. The older sister is in love with a boy at the orphanage, and her younger sister (the titular Saria) doesn’t have time for love, as she’s focused on their escape attempt. However, after their escape attempt fails, Saria sees something in her sister’s love and hopes she too can experience it someday. Sadly, those dreams will never come true, as she and the other girls die in the fire the night after they’re brought back. The filmmaking is a bit frenetic with this one, possibly because there’s a lot to get through to tell the story in twenty minutes. Still, it finds time to focus on the human moments without getting caught up too much in the mere fact of the injustice. Still though – pretty heavy, this one.

The Neighbors’ Window

“The Neighbors’ Window” is the only English language offering this year, and that means probably the winner, since the English language films win about eighty percent of the time. That bias aside, it’s a nice little drama, if not anything striking. The story is about thirty-something parents who become obsessed with (read “jealous of”) the young couple who moves in across from them. The young couple leaves their windows perpetually open (of course prompting us to realize that our main characters also leave their windows open), and seeing the younger people party, have sex, and enjoy life together makes them feel old, no fun, and dissatisfied. This turns on its ear when it becomes clear that the man in the younger couple becomes sick, and ultimately succumbs to cancer. The Rear Window comparisons are inevitable, but that’s really just as a jumping off point. The short instead winds up being a “grass is greener” story, when the older couple finds that the younger ones have been watching their family and are just as jealous. Nothing groundbreaking, but there are some nice heartfelt moments.

There you have it! Five short films, and as far as the Academy is concerned, one of these is the best short film in the whole wide world for 2019. Pretty impressive. Hopefully you find a way to see them before the big night, but if not, hopefully this little breakdown will give you the edge on your Oscar ballot!

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