Short films rely on the formula: Setup. Suspense. Payoff. The five nominees for this year’s Live Action Short Film Oscar are a mixed bag. All of the films depict characters coming together and being torn apart, albeit under very different circumstances. Because short films offer relatively little character development, they need to pull viewers into the experience immediately, and keep them there.
My Nephew Emmett does this as it recounts the horrific true story of Emmett Till, who was murdered in 1955 Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a white woman. This evocative short is told almost entirely from the point of view of Emmett’s uncle, Mose Wright (L.B. Williams) who wants to protect his nephew Emmett (Joshua Wright) from harm. The film, written and directed by Kevin Wilson, Jr., captures the intense confrontation between Mose and J. W. Milam (Dane Rhodes) who comes for Emmett at 2:30 am. A scene of Mose lying in bed, with his eyes open, as Milam drives up to the house is haunting. My Nephew Emmett is certainly compelling and tragic, but it is a long shot to take home the Oscar.
Another true story, Watu Wote: All of Us, is set in Nairobi, 2015. A Christian woman Jua (Adelyne Wairimu) boards a bus where most of the passengers are Muslim. She is very tense because of the conflicts between Muslims and Christians, and while she rejects the water Muslims offer her, she does apologize for her rudeness. However, when Al-Shabaab terrorists create a disturbance on the trip, Jua finds an unlikely ally in another passenger. The film is slow to start, but once the drama unfolds, director Katja Benrath creates a palpable sense of tension. Watu Wote highlights a prominent character whose admirable actions in real-life inspired this film to be made. But visibility is about all this film will get at the Oscars.
From England, The Silent Child also tackles an important topic, that of making sure deaf children have assistance in school so they can perform as well as everyone else. This well-meaning film, however, is too preachy as Joanne (Rachel Shenton), a social worker, comes to tutor young Libby (Maisie Sly) whose busy mother Sue (Rachel Fielding) largely neglects her daughter and her disability. As Joanne bonds with Libby, the young girl blossoms, but Sue makes some decisions that jeopardize her daughter’s future. The Silent Child is both emotionally and narratively manipulative with director Chris Overton filming Sue in stark lighting to highlight her meanness, and Joanne or Libby behind bars or windows to indicate their separation at times. There is one interesting twist in the story, but Overton’s film is so bland and maudlin it might actually win in a surprise upset.
The Eleven O’Clock is the only nominated comedy, and it’s also the weakest film of the bunch. Long at just under 12 minutes, the film has Nathan Klein (Damon Herriman), a psychiatrist waiting for his 11:00 appointment with Terry Phillips (Josh Lawson), who is a patient pretending to be a psychiatrist. It’s obvious where this short is going even before the characters start talking in circles, and confusing each other with a word association game, and calling each other Mr. when they prefer Dr. The performances might be nimble, but the material is irritating.
Rounding out the nominees is DeKalb Elementary. Writer/director Reed Van Dyk’s riveting film shows what makes short films so satisfying. The story is almost entirely comprised of a lengthy encounter between two people, Steven Hall (Bo Mitchell) and Cassandra Rice (Tarra Riggs) in the office of the titular school. It would spoil the film’s magic to disclose the nature of the crisis that escalates during their exchange. The film, which wisely almost never leaves the office, is remarkably intense and moving. Riggs’ performance is phenomenal. She is so fantastic sizing Steven up that she will make viewers wish her work could be considered for a Best Actress Oscar. DeKalb Elementary is inspired by an actual event, and it is a timely, powerful short. Oddsmakers have it as the favorite to win this year, and it would be entirely justified and richly deserved.
The Oscar-nominated Live Action Shorts are now playing at the Ritz Bourse.
Author: Gary M. Kramer
Gary M. Kramer is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer. He is the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina. Volumes 1 and 2, and teaches seminars at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute. Follow him on Twitter @garymkramer.