Oscarbation, Live Action Shorts: The (British) Kids Are All Right

02/04/2011 10:38 AM |

This is how you make a short film...

  • “This is how you make a short film…”

Hey, it’s Mutual Oscarbation, our awards season feature in which Benjamin Sutton and Henry Stewart find out during what sorts of movies Academy members are catching up with the kids. This week they discuss the precocious children in the films nominated for Best Short Film, Live Action.

So, Stewart, the Academy really likes children in their short films, huh? I remember that being the case a couple years ago, but not quite like this: of the five nominees for Best Short Film, Live Action this year, four are about minors, and the other, the weakest, God of Love, is about perpetual-adolescent Williamsburg hipsters! Maybe it’s a necessity of the form? Given twenty-something minutes max you’ve gotta make people care about your characters as strongly and quickly as possible, and it would appear that sad, vulnerable and very serious young boys are the best characters with whom to achieve this.

But I don’t mean to sound cynical, I like four of the five noms: British guilt trip The Confession, in which a young boy gets desperate because he has nothing to confess at confession; Irish schoolboy-teacher romance gone too far The Crush; Belgian Burundi-set, Bono-diffused hostage situation Na Wewe; and my favorite, Wish 143, about a cancer-stricken bloke of 16. I guess what I enjoy about the latter, not only compared to the other noms but also given the portrayal of fatally ill characters in Oscarbait-y films generally, is how relatively unsentimental the script (by Tom Bidwell) and performance (by Samuel Peter Holland) are. What do you think, Henry, are kids just the quickest way to an Academy member’s ballot, or is there something more going on here?

I’m surprised you thought Wish 143 was “unsentimental,” Ben. I mean, sure, it’s about yet another randy English minor, this one terminally ill and horny; Holland’s performance is tender and underplayed, and the short around him cheeky, but only in the same safe way that Geoffrey Rush’s character was in The King’s Speech. At it’s heart, Wish struck me as essentially maudlin, which is what Oscar voters crave. The whole shorts package is fascinating because it offers glimpses of what appeals to the Academy—but, succinctly, in miniature. Like, in Na Wewe (my second fave of the lot), you have the Rwandan genocide (Hotel Rwanda), treated with a soft touch of absurdist levity (Life is Beautiful). Rwanda ’94 is practically Poland ’39 (Schindler’s List), as Oscars go! And the story embraces commonality, humanism, while underlining the arbitrariness of our differences (The Blind Side, The Kids Are All Right). In God of Love—which retooled the Cupid myth for a French New Wave-affected present—they take a trip to the ballet (at Lincoln Center!!) to see, what else, Swan Lake—and we all know how much the Academy likes that!

There’s certainly a “Best of Oscar Mixtape” quality to the live action short noms, Henry. In that respect they also straddle the divide between period pieces and contemporary films that seems so pronounced this year. The Confession is all lush “simpler times” English countryside (although it nearly flips the switch into horror genre scares, Swan-style, at one delicious point); The Crush, while contemporary, unfolds in a similarly quaint, nostalgia-tinged, small-town setting; God of Love, though firmly located in late-aughts Williamsburg, is shot through with hipsterific, Andersonian (or Sofia Coppola-esque?) vintage-ness, from the black-and-white cinematography and bold sans-serif credits typeface to the jazz score; even Wish 143, for all its football (err, soccer) talk and texting, takes place in a place where a boy’s best friend is the town priest (ew!). Come to think of it, Henry, maybe the connector in this category isn’t precocious kids, but absentee parents. Which of them was your favorite? You never said.

Obviously, Confession, because it’s clearly the best! For starters, it might be the prettiest thing I saw from last year. I mean, shit, that widescreen? Sometimes it’s easy to sympathize with Fritz Lang’s old crack about 2.35:1 not being good for anything but “snakes and funerals” (like in Oscar-popular Finding Neverland) but when you see a movie like this (directed by Tanel Toom and shot by Davide Cinzi) you suddenly understand the majesty of widescreen—at least, its unparalleled capacity for the expanse of cornfields and countryside. I liked the quick shift into horror you mentioned, as well as newcomer Lewis Howlett’s tremendous performance (and he’s, what? Nine years old?) But the best thing about this short was the quiet way it illustrated this menacing side of religion, Catholicism in particular: how the church feeds off sin, serves as a catalyst for transgression, creates more wickedness than it conquers. A more sentimental view of religion, such as the one found in your favorite, Wish 143, might have more broad appeal (and, even, Oscar chances). But if the Oscar goes to any other than this deserving rare-beauty, it’ll only be the Academy proving its irrelevance. Yet again.