Madre (Mother) – Rodrigo Sorogoyen and María del Puy Alvarado
Madre tells the story of an endangered child. Shot almost entirely as a single take (or cleverly edited to appear so), the film opens on an empty, tranquil beach before transitioning to a mother’s phone call with her young son who has found himself alone on a nameless beach in a foreign country. The boy’s father has gone missing and there’s no help in sight. That the child’s phone is quickly running out of battery only adds to the immediacy of the mother and the audience’s fear as she finds herself unable to help in any meaningful way. The empty beach shot at the film’s conclusion yields entirely different emotions than the one the opens the film. This is an impressive work of direction, writing, and acting. I can’t imagine the drain of multiple takes if the film’s main sequence was indeed attempted as a single shot.
Fauve – Jeremy Comte and Maria Gracia Turgeon
Fauve tells the story of an endangered child. This Sundance-winning short is about two boys playing a “made you look” game in the countryside where they score points by convincing each other to believe their playful childhood lies. But when the pair’s aimless journey takes them from the fields to an empty surface mine, the game takes a dangerous turn. It’s more than just a “cry wolf” story. Fauve digs deeper than many other shorts here by providing a context to young manhood and the inherent danger of forcing oneself to disbelieve another’s pain until it’s too late. The mountainous grey backdrop of the ominously empty mine pit is another eerie touch. Juxtaposed to the earlier verdant woods and fields, they are a harsh symbol of the stakes.
Marguetire – Marianne Farley and Marie-Hélène Panisset
Marguerite is an intimate film about an elderly woman and her home healthcare nurse as the titular Marguerite investigates the romantic feelings she was never allowed to explore through the life events of her much younger caretaker. Beatrice Picard gives an impressive performance as the title character, giving a great example of subtlety. Marguerite says very little, but her looks and expressions speak volumes as she deals with a part of her life that she’s long kept buried. Tender and heartfelt, Marguerite isn’t exactly breezy, but it’s miles lighter than the competition. It’s bittersweet instead of tragic, and that sets it completely apart from the field.
Detainment – Vincent Lambe and Darren Mahon
Detainment tells the story of an endangered child. Constructed from police transcripts, this film tells the story of the investigation into a toddler’s murder and the two school-aged boys who later became the youngest convicted murderers in Great Britain’s history. Child endangerment is obviously a theme among these nominees, but Detainment borders on torture porn as the murder is revealed piece by piece and the two boys finally confront the reality of what they’ve done. The child actors are quite impressive, and the film is surprisingly emotionally restrained, but that won’t save Detainment which is under intense scrutiny from the real-life victim’s mother and requests to recall the nomination. There are artistic things to admire here, but a win for Detainment would be a disaster for the Academy and further solidify that its awards are only for tales of despair and darkness.
Skin – Guy Nattiv and Jaime Ray Newman
Skin tells the story of an endangered child. The boy here is less physically endangered than emotionally, but with the group of skinheads raising him it seems like only a matter of time before the former becomes the latter. He’s exposed to racial hatred, unsafe adventures, a vast array of weapons, and other poor parenting on the way to witnessing his father and role models’ merciless beating of a black man outside a grocery store. What follows that beating are two of the dumbest plot twists on this side of Vic Morrow’s Twilight Zone: The Movie segment. Skin does feature the most dynamic performance from these shorts from Jonathan Tucker as the neo-nazi father, but it tackles racism with an idea that could have originated in a brainstorming meeting with third graders. I know the Academy loves a film that tackles racism, but even director Guy Nattiv seems to have realized there’s a better story to do so with. His feature film adaptation of this short goes in a very different direction.
What it Means: I mean, what the hell Oscar voters? I love the shorts, but this year’s live action slate was to be endured, not enjoyed. My tearful girlfriend actually turned to me and actually asked “is it like this every year?” I assured her there’s usually at least one comedic charmer. I don’t know if the voters are depressed or these nominees represent a darkness in the submissions as a whole, but geez.
I’ve never correctly picked the live-action category, but I’ve noticed a preference for feel-good films even if some of those darker films are actually better. The Oscars, here at least, are all about hugs. That makes Marguerite the clear frontrunner, and it helps that it’s actually one of the better nominees to boot. If you want to pick someone for artistic merit that I’d lean towards Fauve. I hate to say it, but I also think Skin is in the mix. Voters seems to love something that isn’t too challenging and ties up all its loose ends in a neat little box. Skin fits that bill.