The Academy skewed dark in its choice of live-action shorts this year, selecting four films to slit your wrists by — each one featuring child endangerment in a different form — and a fifth, about a diabetic on her death bed, that finds a glimmer of uplift at the other end of life. If that sounds like a complaint, think again: All too often, the Academy falls for either lightweight comedic shorts or over-earnest social-issue dramas, whereas this lot consists of several genuinely well-tooled micro-thrillers. It’s just a lot to stomach in a single, two-hour sitting.
The theatrical program opens with Spanish director Rodrigo Sorogoyen’s Goya-winning “Madre,” which begins with a slow pan of an empty beach — meaningless at first, but setting the stage for a parental nightmare that plays out entirely in the audience’s imagination. Like Gustav Möller’s nail-biting Danish feature “The Guilty,” this short conjures an uncertain but potentially grave scenario at the other end of a phone call, except this time, instead of focusing on a relatively calm emergency operator, we’re invited to identify with a panicky mother. The caller is her 6-year-old, who’s supposed to be traveling with his father, but has inexplicably wound up by himself on a beach hours away in France. Where is he exactly? What happened to his chaperone? And why doesn’t his mom simply ask him to text her his location? “Madre” is more of an exercise than a movie, turning every parent’s worst nightmare into a gimmicky calling card.
Contrast that with “Fauve,” the more enigmatic short that immediately follows, and one can appreciate the difference between exploitation and artistry: Canadian director Jeremy Comte plunges us into the midst of a primitive game, as two boys (Felix Grenier and Alexandre Perreault) try to one-up each other via a series of cruel tricks. Their world feels eerily abandoned, ranging from abandoned train tracks to an off-limits surface mine, where things take an unexpected turn. Comte disorients us at first, leaving us to play detective as we attempt to figure out the rules, and before things quite make sense, he springs the twist, putting the kids in imminent danger. It’s cruel, to be sure, and yet, in the space of a few minutes, he’s established the situation well enough for audiences to identify with the situation — and to appreciate the terrible irony of the short’s slow denouement. Voters will do what voters do, but “Fauve” is far and away the strongest contender.
For the West L.A. theater full of elderly ladies, however, the clear favorite was “Marguerite,” another French-language Canadian offering — although this one strikes a much different, and far more sensitive tone. Hinging on kindness rather than conflict, the short observes the connection between a kindly nurse (Sandrine Bisson) and her charge, Marguerite (Béatrice Picard), the invalid older woman whom she visits daily. Such a story could have gone any number of directions, most of them depressing, but director Marianne Farley — the category’s only female helmer — doesn’t abuse the end-of-life premise. (Gentle spoilers ahead.) Rather, she reveals first that the nurse is a lesbian, and later that Marguerite missed out on a same-sex love of her own decades earlier, when such things simply weren’t allowed. The film invites us to wonder how many “Marguerites” there are in the world, while sensitively offering this one a meaningful connection with someone she’d been taught to fear.
From there, it’s straight back into nerve-wracking mode, as “Detainment” writer-director Vincent Lambe re-creates one of Britain’s most notorious murder cases, in which two 10-year-old boys were convincted of abducting, torturing, and ultimately killing 2-year-old “Baby James.” True-crime reenactments have been popular fodder for short-film directors of late, but this one is unusually effective, relying on transcripts of police interviews with the two suspects, Robert Thompson and Jon Venables (played by Leon Hughes and Ely Solan in a pair of stunning child performances), to provide a window into their psychology. That’s a risky undertaking — and one that has exposed Lambe to considerable criticism — as it so often amplifies the celebrity of society’s most depraved individuals, but there’s something not just compelling, but almost necessary about this portrayal: Whereas “Fauve” depicts an accident of sorts, “Detainment” reveals a deliberate case of human cruelty, the horror of which was compounded by its apparent lack of motive.
The fifth and final nominee, “Skin,” is a stunner from Israeli director Guy Nattiv, although it stacks the deck so outrageously against a bunch of racist white neo-Nazis that it’s hard to take seriously at times. Nattiv went on to direct a separate feature, also called “Skin,” about a former skinhead (played by Jamie Bell) who had a change of heart and went on to have all of his white-power tattoos removed. While that story actually happened (see the documentary “Erasing Hate”), this far-fetched fiction short imagines virtually the opposite scenario, as the perpetrator of a hate crime (Jonathan Tucker, seething and self-righteous) faces a kind of poetic retribution. To amplify audiences’ outrage, Nattiv frames the story from the p.o.v. of the bigot’s pre-teen son, who has been all but brainwashed into becoming the perfect weapon for the film’s shocking conclusion. Nattiv is an undeniably gifted filmmaker, but the feature proves more impactful.