They might not be as strong overall as the animated shorts or the documentaries, but audiences should find much to admire in this year’s Oscar-nominated live action shorts. A mix of international and American works, the films tackle pressing issues of the day. There are few, if any laughs to be found among these five Oscar nominees. However, that sadly makes them a reflection of reality.
Two Distant Strangers
There seems to be no shortage of time loop movies. Groundhog Day? Palm Springs? Been there, done that! The cyclical nature of our humdrum existence mostly uses these loops for comedic effect. It’s therefore refreshing to see a film like Two Distant Strangers spin the time loop trope anew. This short by Travon Free and Martin Desmond Roe taps the pulse of the Black Lives Matter movement. In this sense, it delivers a sci-fi/horror film about the being Black and living with the ever-present reality that a hotheaded cop can enact whatever violence he pleases upon your body.
Two Distant Strangers follows artist Carter (Joey Bada$$) as he awakens from a one-night stand with Perri (Zaria Simone). At first, his walk of shame become a strut of pride as he returns home to feed his dog. Shortly after leaving Perri’s building, however, Carter has an altercation with a cop (Andrew Howard). Seconds later, Carter awakens in Perri’s bed again, gasping and wondering if his experience uttering the words “I can’t breathe” were simply a bad dream.
The film evolves as a horror movie as Carter tries to return to his dog, each time succumbing to the cop’s violence no matter the route he takes or the moves he tries. This cop is a nasty cuss with a mean streak. On the other hand, Bada$$’s compelling performance as Carter honours the lives taken by systemic racism. He fuels the film with Carter’s humanity, reminding audiences in each frame that this is simply a man in the prime of his life who wants to feed his dog. As Tupac Shakur’s “Changes” repeats the refrain “That’s just the way it is” on the soundtrack day in and day out, Two Distant Strangers poignantly asserts itself a film for the moment.
Feeling Through, like Two Distant Strangers, illustrates how this year’s Oscar-nominated live action shorts foreground representation. It’s a well-intentioned story about a young man named Tereek (Steve Prescod) catching a late bus so that he can crash on a couch. At the stop, he encounters Artie (Robert Tarango), a Deafblind man who asks him to flag the bus. Tereek, anxious to secure warmth and shelter for the night, begrudgingly obliges.
Although the two performances in Feeling Through are sensitive and compassionate, they can’t overcome the maudlin material. This film is the kind of pandering feel-good “we’re all in this together” triteness that makes one cringe. One could easily mistake it for a student film, rather than a contender for the industry’s highest honour. However, one must admire its earnest intentions.
Matters of representation fare much better dramatically in the riveting drama White Eye. Directed by Tomer Shushan, White Eye witnesses the tensions between an Israeli man and the immigrant “other.” A man finds his stolen bicycle chained to a post and, in searching for assistance removing it, encounters anonymous refugees, asylum seekers, and an Eritrean man who may or may not have stolen it. As the debate about the bicycle’s ownership assumes larger implications while the two men argue, eventually inviting onlookers and the police to enter the fray, White Eye constructs a potent powder keg.
The tension mounts brilliantly thanks to Shushan’s shrewd choice to stage the drama in one masterful long take. The action holds as the camera moves from the open square, through alleys, and into workspaces. Eventually, the camera finds its way into the back rooms where the migrants work unseen. Besides creating tension, the conceit of the long take emphasizes presence and belonging. A character’s right to exist within the frame assumes striking resonance. When one character exits, the use of space in the dramatic field assumes higher significance. White Eye is arguably the most technically accomplished of the Oscar-nominated live action shorts. It’s a thrilling and captivating encapsulation of these divisive times.
The Letter Room
A novel addition to the nominees comes in The Letter Room. The film stars Oscar Isaac and has a brief appearance by Alia Shawkat—they’re the only “name” actors in the category—in the time honoured short film tradition of letting one character carry a show. His isolation is part of his job, however, as Richard, a corrections officers, gets transferred to the “letter room.” As his stuffy supervisor explains, the job involves scanning and reading inmates’ mail. Naturally, Richard becomes involved in their lives.
The set-up for The Letter Room is fun and Isaac gives his character refreshing dimensions. His performance invites one to wonder why Richard is so desperate for connection. Despite his freedom, he isolates himself and places himself in the wallowing loneliness that consumes the inmates. The character and performance aren’t quite enough, however, as The Letter Room proves tediously slow. This short film feels like a feature. Written and directed by Isaac’s partner Elvira Lind, making her dramatic debut after the brilliant doc Bobbi Jene, The Letter Room somewhat falls victim to the short film fallacy of letting a character or premise do all the lifting. Lind is a genuine talent behind the camera, but the screenplay falls short. There just isn’t enough to it. Maybe the film needs an even shorter cut. Every year one film that makes a better case for Best Performance in a Short, and The Letter Room is it.
Perhaps the best fusion of representational value, dramatic heft, and thematic weight comes in The Present. Like White Eye, this short is another potent look at tensions of xenophia and protectionism in Israel. This time, however, the point of view comes from Palestine as father Yusef (Saleh Bakri) crosses the border to buy a refrigerator. He has his daughter (Mariam Basha) in tow, which makes the crossing at the Bethlehem checkpoint especially tense. As with Two Distant Strangers, The Present is the story of a man harassed simply for existing.
Director Farah Nabulsi realizes the complexity of the situation through the fatigue and stress the father and daughter endure. The Present is emotionally arduous, but never heavy-handed. Shot on location at Checkpoint 300 in the West Bank, the film pulses with documentary-like realism. It is extremely tense as the differences between the father and the soldiers, as well as his frustration and their impatience, ratchet up the pressure. The performances by Bakri and Basha fuel the film, too, with roles both physically and emotionally demanding. The young performer ultimately steals the film, however, as little Noor’s strength displays hope with the new generation. The Present is a gift among this year’s Oscar-nominated live action shorts. The Academy won’t need a receipt.
The Oscar-nominated live action shorts screen via TIFF Bell Lightbox beginning April 2.