It was only coincidental that I went to see a program of five Oscar-nominated short films last weekend, just after the Motion Picture Academy backtracked on its plan to relegate that and three other awards to a commercial break on Sunday’s Oscar telecast. Now I see what a travesty it would have been. Collectively, the five dramatic shorts — from Spain, Canada, Ireland and the U.S., each running between 15 and 30 minutes — were easily the most rewarding evening I’ve spent in a movie theater in the past year. They are intense, often disturbing viewing; four of the five films involve children in peril or witnessing horrific things. Close to a quarter of the older audience in the theater where I saw it walked out at some point during the evening. And not because they were bored.
The first film, Madre, from Spanish writer-director Rodrigo Sorogoyen, has a brilliantly simple premise — a mother on the phone with her six-year-old son, who is lost and alone at a beach — and plays out in just one scene, shot without even (so far as I can recall) a single edit. Yet it builds almost excruciating tension, ends ambiguously, and leaves you shaken. My first thought, after it ended, was that it should not have led off the program, because none of the films that followed could possibly match its impact. And then nearly every one did.
Fauve, from French-Canadian director Jeremy Comte, about two boys on an afternoon spree whose pranking and power games go terribly awry, is even more harrowing and hard to shake. Marguerite, about an elderly woman and her home-care nurse, qualifies as a quietly touching reprieve. But it is followed by Detainment, a dramatic re-creation of the interrogation of two 10-year-old boys accused of kidnapping and murdering a two-year-old child in Liverpool in 1993. The film, based on actual police transcripts, has drawn objections from the mother of the real-life murdered boy. But it is gripping without being graphic, and so credibly acted (particularly by the two child suspects) that at times it is hard to realize it’s not a documentary.
The final film in the program, Skin, is the slickest and most conventionally melodramatic of the bunch. A morality tale of race and retribution, focusing on a family of gun-obsessed, militia-style rednecks, the film (from Israeli-born director Guy Native) is perhaps a little too pat in the dramatic irony of its denouement. But it packs more potent, uncomfortable truth about racial hatred into its taut 20 minutes than Spike Lee does in two hours of his facile (and Oscar-nominated) BlacKkKlansman.
Some have predicted that Skin will take the Oscar, and given its topical subject matter, it just might. But any one of these five little gems is deserving. Catch them if you can.