Film Review: 2018 Oscar Nominated Short Films: Live Action

This year's slate of live-action Oscar nominated shorts runs the quality gamut.
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The most impressive live-action short in this year’s Oscar race is by the only woman nominated in this category. Katja Benrath’s Watu Wote (All of Us, Germany/Kenya) is based on a 2015 bus attack by Muslim extremists in a disputed territory near the border between Kenya and Somalia. In the 23-minute film, a woman (Adelyne Wairimu) boards a bus in Nairobi to travel north to Mandera County. When she purchases her ticket, she asks about a police escort, and is assured there will be one, but later the passengers learn that the police have car trouble. It is a 31-hour journey, and no one wants to be delayed, least of all the bus driver; he tells the passengers that they will be safe. Many of them are Muslim, and the woman is a Christian.

As an intertitle explains, there is a growing mistrust between the two groups because of the killing of Christians by al-Shabaab militants. The woman is traveling to be with her ailing mother, and she fears for her life. Near the end of the journey, terrorists stop the bus and demand that the Muslims give up the Christians. Fine performances by Wairimu and the supporting cast lend great authenticity to the narrative, as does the on-location filming in Kenya. While Benrath’s direction is somewhat uneven in that it shifts points of view, Watu Wote is well-written; the story fits the short format perfectly, and deftly arrives at its resolution.

An excellent performance also anchors Kevin Wilson’s My Nephew Emmett (USA), a 20-minute film shot from the point of view of Mose Wright, Emmett Till’s great uncle. He invited the boy to Mississippi while on a visit to Chicago. The film is obviously inspired by the archival footage of Wright included in several documentaries about Till’s death; in that news footage, he exits his home to meet a journalist, and testifies to the conditions under which his nephew was taken from his bed the night he was murdered. While the late L.B. Williams (also a fair-housing activist in New York City) delivers a wonderful performance as Mose, My Nephew Emmett borders on the melodramatic, in part because the plot has no narrative arc. Wilson immediately foreshadows Emmett’s demise, rather than beginning with a scene of a 14-year-old boy excited by his first visit to the Delta, or one that establishes Emmett’s affection for Mose.

Reed Van Dyk’s Dekalb Elementary (USA), a well-directed short, is based on a recent incident in Atlanta, Georgia, in which a disturbed young man entered a school armed with a rifle. In the 20-minute film, he is met by a woman at the desk who, through a show of compassion, allows him to regain his composure. (The real-life employee is Antoinette Tuff.) Solid performances by television actor Bo Mitchell as the potential shooter and Tarra Riggs (The Help) as the woman illustrate how simple displays of humanity can curtail erratic or violent behavior. The short is a bit drawn out, but Van Dyk’s choice to keep the action unfolding in what appears to be real time mutes the potential thriller aspect of the story that does not reflect the writer-director’s intent. Strong characterization also rids the narrative of the didactic quality of advocacy films, in contrast to Chris Overton’s The Silent Child (U.K.), another nominee in this category.

Overton’s 20-minute short is about a deaf girl, Libby (Maisie Sly), who feels isolated from her gregarious family. She can lip-read, but she does not speak well, so she is often unable to convey her needs. Libby spends her days watching television. On the verge of entering school, she is examined by a social worker (Rachel Shenton), who teaches her sign language. Libby’s mood improves, but her mother (Rachel Fielding) tells the social worker that the family does not have time to learn sign language, and that Libby will be just fine reading lips and improving her speech. Because Overton’s clichéd screenplay emphasizes the competition between the youthful social worker and Libby’s mother in order to advocate for sign language, the focus is not on Libby.

Derin Seale’s The Eleven O’Clock (Australia) feels like an acting class improvisation exercise. Ostensibly the comedic entry in this year’s live-action shorts category, it is about two men who both insist they are psychiatrists with an 11 a.m. patient. The action unfolds in a psychiatric office with the pair arguing over who is the real psychiatrist and who is the delusional patient. The Eleven O’Clock is like watching Abbott & Costello’s “Who’s on First?” skit for 13 minutes; excruciating and predictable, and not in the least bit funny, it fails even to deliver on the juvenile pleasure of watching an Abbott & Costello routine.