The 2019 batch of Oscar-nominated short films in the animated and live-action categories share a theme of disconnection. The animated shorts have a sunnier attitude about this painful state, demonstrating how divides can be bridged. The live-action films, meanwhile, forge ahead into darkness. They ask: What if the connection severs? What it if never clicks? What if two worlds remain unbridgeable?
Of the animated set, Bao (8 min.) edges closest to the precipice. Writer-director Domee Shi, the first woman to direct a short film for Pixar, startled audiences who went to see Incredibles 2 in theaters and got the delicious, offbeat Bao as an appetizer.
The protagonist is a lonely Chinese-Canadian woman who makes a dumpling that comes to life. She raises the dumpling baby as her son; but as he quickly grows, he also grows apart from her, rejecting the mother-son mealtimes he used to enjoy when he was small for time spent with friends and soon a fiancee. Terrified by how fast their connection is fraying, the mother makes a decision that is at once metaphorically brilliant and twisted on a raw emotional level. The ending redresses the situation and restores the bond. And yet the pain of their schism lingers.
In Late Afternoon (10 min.), an elderly Irish woman straddles a rift between her memories and reality. The tension arises from whether the woman will close the gap or fall through, powered by writer-director Louise Bagnall’s expressionistic and mutable style. The woman’s past swirls through her present in colors that unfurl into shapes, a kaleidoscopic beauty that alternatively confuses and clarifies the life before her eyes. A plaintive violin score from Irish musician Colm Mac Con Iomaire runs through both worlds, making a reconnection, once it crystallizes, all the sweeter.
Weekends (16 min.) also toggles between two worlds, telling the story of a boy in 1980s Toronto who routinely crosses the chasm of his parents’ divorce. Spending weekdays with his mother in the country and weekends with his father in the city, the boy learns how to connect with them in different ways based on their differences as people and how to reconcile his parents’ differences within himself. At first, the duality is stark. The mother’s house is melancholy and muted, while the father’s apartment thrums with urban noise and garish colors. The eventual blending of these environments from the boy’s perspective is a perfect match for the talents for filmmaker Trevor Jimenez. His cloudy and jittery animation style is as striking in establishing the binaries within the boy as it is poignant in dismantling them.
Though closer to a Pixar film in its glossy style and tone, One Small Step (8 min.) from filmmakers Andrew Chesworth and Bobby Pontillas is another heart tugger about a parent-child relationship. The narrative centers on a Chinese-American girl and her single father, a shoemaker, who supports his daughter’s dream of becoming an astronaut. But as she grows up, she struggles in school and drifts apart from her dad, to the point that their connection, along with her vision for herself, shatters. Similar to Bao, but more like the sci-fi weepies Contact and Interstellar, this film has a bittersweet ending and a wholehearted message: that the bond between a loving parent and child is otherworldly in its might.
Animal Behaviour (14 min.), the only outright comedy of the bunch, posits that what separates us from each other is also what disconnects us from ourselves: addictions, compulsions, anxieties, and so on. Thus, five animals meet in group therapy to discuss their hang-ups. A cat can’t stop licking himself. A pig can’t stop eating. A praying mantis eats her lovers. A leech has separation anxiety. A Bigfoot-like creature has anger issues. A bird under hypnosis recalls how he pushed his baby brother out of their nest in a jealous rage when they were hatchlings, with the defense: “He was eating my worms!”
Codirectors Alison Snowden and David Fine, while uninventive in their animation style, are canny about the disconnect that occurs when primal urges overtake rational thought. Much of the film’s humor stems from the animals’ hypocrisy; they can see problems in others, but are either oblivious to or unwilling to acknowledge similar defects in themselves.
The live-action short Detainment (30 min.) also contains blame shifting, though the circumstances couldn’t be grimmer. In 1993, two ten-year-old boys kidnapped, tortured, and murdered a toddler in Liverpool, England. This film focuses on the boys when they were first detained by the police and interviewed in separate locations with their parents by their sides. The conversations, based on public records and the interview transcripts, are extremely disturbing. The reason is fourfold: the boys either don’t understand or don’t care about the depths of their brutality (probably both), they are breathtaking liars, the parents are shaken by what they’ve wrought, and the actors who play the boys are outstanding.
But if writer-director Vincent Lambe’s goal was to unnerve his audience, this was a cheap shot, and he should have made a different movie. What Lambe considers but leaves unplumbed is how children are more easily forgiven for smudging the line between right and wrong, and how adults too easily let them. This disconnection is ripe for a wider-reaching documentary or fictionalized narrative film. But as a shallow reenactment, this movie adds nothing to the tragedy.
A better film about two boys with a shaky sense of reality and consequences is Fauve (17 min.), which in French means “wild beast.” Montreal-based filmmaker Jeremy Comte crafts a remarkable portrait of inseparable friends, preteens who get off on tricking each other. For example, the smaller one pretends to break his leg and the taller one, skinny and shirtless, calls his bluff. It goes on like this for a while, the boys roving from an abandoned train to a sun-soaked field to harsher environs I won’t spoil here. Suffice it to say that Comte knows how to snap a connection and leave it pulsing like a phantom limb.
So too does the Spanish filmmaker Rodrigo Sorogoyen, as evidenced by his short film Madre (19 min.). A woman stops by her apartment with her mother and answers a phone call from her ex, Ramon. Their six-year-old son is on the line, saying Ramon has left him on an empty beach somewhere in France or Spain, he’s not sure which. The woman hands the phone to her mother and calls a mutual friend and then the police.
The film contains no cuts and no close-ups. The camera stays wide, only pushing closer when the woman’s desperation peaks. It follows her around the apartment as she paces, pleading to her most beloved to keep talking, to stay on the line—even as his battery dies, his reception drops to one bar, and a strange man approaches. Though mostly confined to one bright space, Madre welcomes darkness, punctuated in the end by a dropped call’s sickening beep.
Marguerite (19 min.), written and directed by Marianne Farley, is about a woman at the end of her life contemplating a connection she never made. The woman is dying of kidney disease, and her only earthly bond, it seems, is with her caretaker. When she learns that her caretaker is a lesbian, she turns to an old photo album filled with memories of her best friend: the one who got away because she never admitted her true feelings. Later, she asks her caretaker, “What’s it like to make love to a woman?”
The film could have dipped into darker territory from here, but Farley demurs. Instead, the sadness deepens, grows tender like so many bruises. It’s rare to get a second chance in life. If you’re lucky, you get a shadow of it.
The best of the live-action films, Skin (20 min.), ups the ante to examine one of the most unfortunate outcomes of disconnection: violent fear of the other. A sweet-natured boy looks up to his father (Jonathan Tucker), mother (Danielle Macdonald), and their friends, all of whom are skinheads. He joins his parents at the supermarket and sees a black man in another checkout line; they smile at each other. The father sees this interaction. He calls his friends and they beat the man nearly to death in the parking lot. The man’s wife and son watch, scream, and cry from inside their car.
In this movie, as in life, a disconnection is often a connection too. When the black boy watches the white boy drive away with the attackers, he sees both a connection in their shared age and the most profound disconnection making sense fully, perhaps for the first time. Other examples abound, but the most striking is the way the black man’s friends execute a reprisal that this critic in no way saw coming.
Written and directed by Guy Nattiv, and based on an original idea by Jaime Ray Newman, Skin has a tight structure and a perfect ending. If it were published as a short story, it would win many a literary prize. As a short film, it certainly deserves an Oscar. v