Film Review: 2011 Academy Award-Nominated Short Films: Live Action

<i>Na Wewe</i> from Belgium and <i>Wish 143 </i>from the U.K. are the standouts in an otherwise lackluster group of Oscar-nominated live-action shorts.

The best of the five Oscar nominees in the Live Action Shorts category are Ivan Goldschmidt’s Na Wewe (Belgium) and Ian Barnes’ Wish 143 (U.K). Each is a light-hearted look at a very grim subject. Two of the shorts are about adolescent dilemmas, Tanel Toom’s The Confession and Michael Creagh’s The Crush, and another, Luke Matheny’s God of Love, is a bizarre male fantasy with strictly adolescent appeal.

The Live Action Shorts, like those in the Animation category, are dominated by male filmmakers, although women are represented in the roles of writer and producer. None of the ten shorts in these two categories features a woman or a girl in a main role. While these facts do not detract from the work of the individual nominees, this disappointing lack of representation is magnified when we consider the ways in which women figure in the plots of this year’s live-action shorts. In three of the five, female characters are objects of male fantasies; in one, the girl next door is found wanting, in another a woman learns a life lesson from a boy, and in the third, she is the victim of a juvenile male pact. Topping the list, though, is the stereotypical good-hearted hooker in Wish 143.

In that bittersweet comedy, 15-year-old David (Sam Holland) is dying of cancer. When he is not grappling with the effects of chemo, he’s beleaguered by a doctor who insists on comparing the size of his tumor to various fruits, and by Dreamscape, a charitable organization who will not grant his dying wish to have sex with a woman, namely a girl he has ogled at school. That’s Wish 143. While this is a well-acted and well-directed movie, in the end it relies on stereotypical secondary characters, not the least of which is Jim Carter as David’s Roman Catholic priest. David’s fantasy woman, when she appears, falls short of even the audience’s expectations—she’s insipid. The prostitute, implausibly hired by the priest, is a stale “Sweet Charity” character.

The Crush
is the story of an eight-year-old, cowboy-crazy schoolboy, Adral (Oran Creagh), who plans to marry his teacher in ten years or so. That is not as improbable as Adral’s actions when he finds out that Miss Purdy (Olga Wehrly) has become engaged to another guy. What makes the film ridiculous, not to mention offensive, is that Adral, through one outlandish act, transforms the life of a grown woman by teaching her a lesson about love. The story is written by filmmaker Michael Creagh, who is the boy’s father in real life, which makes this short an object lesson in how at least one female stereotype gets perpetuated. Adral is an obsessive little boy, not in that sweet, odd way of intense children, so it is more than a little creepy that Creagh cast his own son in the role. The Crush is contrived and the lackluster cast makes it nearly unbearable to watch. Its only appeal may lie in the male fantasy that is at the core of the film.

God of Love
, which is shot in black-and-white, looks like a student film project. Its narrator and protagonist, Ray, portrayed by writer-director Luke Matheny, is in love with Kelly (Marian Brock), whose only real presence in the film is as a foil for the male characters. Kelly likes Fozzie (Christopher Hirsch), but he steadfastly rejects her because of his friendship with Ray. The feelings of both Kelly and Fozzie are sacrificed in that juvenile male bond, but it’s Kelly who endures rejection night after night. The characters are members of a band, in which Kelly and Fozzie are musicians and Ray sings and throws darts. Ray’s misery ends when he finally realizes his true purpose in life. Building a romantic comedy around narcissism, in this case Ray’s, or neuroses is, unfortunately, not unusual—Woody Allen made a career of it—but it’s passé, a throwback to the 1980s. Only good writing would transform Matheny’s characters to those of romantic or screwball comedy, and that’s not in evidence in God of Love.

Narrative films that spring from personal experience, if well-directed, often transport viewers so manifestly to a place and time, and to a situation which is strangely familiar, that they feel an unusual bond with the filmmaker. That’s the case with Ivan Goldschmidt’s Na Wewe, which takes place on a dirt road somewhere in Burundi in the early 1990s. With biting humor, the writer-director places us in a predicament emblematic of the dangers of the road, one that will be familiar to independent travelers who have visited a developing country, but also to those of us who have witnessed from afar, and long been puzzled by, tribal warfare. Goldschmidt hails from one of the countries that colonized Burundi, and his short is critical of both the racial situation there and the role Europeans have played in it. The title Na wewe, or “you, too,” is obviously a direct challenge to viewers to imagine themselves as a victim of racial discrimination.

In this expertly written short, a van filled to capacity with Africans and one white man is stopped by a band of Hutu rebels armed with Kalashnikovs. The passengers are told to get out of the van and separate themselves into groups, one Hutu and one Tutsi. These tribes together comprise all of Burundi’s people. The passengers, knowing that the rebels are Hutu because of the nature of the internecine warfare, all claim to be Hutu. Soon, it becomes apparent that neither the passengers nor the rebels can distinguish Hutus from Tutsis, and a tense situation gives way to wonderfully absurd comedy. Goldschmidt’s characters are delightfully drawn, especially the captain, ostensibly a peacock, and his more violent second-in-command, but also the woman passenger who berates the rebels and the man who defends himself by recounting his entire racial history.

The Confession is the story of two adolescent boys preparing for the Roman Catholic sacrament of Confirmation, which entails a first confession to a priest. While director Tanel Toom captures the fear this ritual gives rise to in nearly all children, the plot is pointless and melodramatic. Sam and his friend plan a prank so that he will have something to confess to the priest, but there are terrible consequences to the boy’s actions. Afterward, Sam, the more innocent of the pair, yearns for the confessional. Even if we view The Confession as a slice of life, the short offers no profound insights into the lives of boys or into the Roman Catholic ritual, nor does it speculate about the implications of guilt, since it ends with Sam’s indecision.

The Academy’s penchant for awarding the Oscar in this category to comedies would make Wish 143 or Na Wewe favorites, especially the latter because it so cleverly advocates for racial equality. On the other hand, male coming-of-age films are so common and broadly entertaining that the Academy may opt for the safe bet and award one of other three nominees. Whatever it does, one wishes the broadcast itself could include a screening of the winning shorts to celebrate this wonderful cinematic art form.