My attention span has always been questionable — hour-and-a-half lectures often send me scrolling through Twitter for a quick “break.” Even when I watch films at home, I have to be doing something to occupy myself for two hours. Focusing on a single story or set of characters for reviews is a weekly feat that I somehow manage to achieve. The 2020 Oscar Live Action Shorts, however, provided a haven that I didn’t know existed. Averaging around 25 minutes, each short developed wholly individual stories and characters in such an effective and efficient time frame that there was little time to be bored.

From the dangerously funny lines of “laundry detergent” in “NEFTA Football Club” to the devastating end of “Saria,” these shorts prove that niche concepts create better and more engaging stories than the more general, mainstream messages often seen in popular feature-length films. Even the two more generic shorts, “A Sister” and “The Neighbor’s Window,” were able to create nuanced experiences for their audience.  

Discussing the female experience in a patriarchal world has grown in popularity in the last few years. Though this conversation has been ongoing, it has yet to lose its emotional strength, especially when films like “A Sister” continually provide new and relevant perspectives. Delphine Girard’s (“Caverne”) newest piece maintains an anonymous air focusing on the shared experience of an emergency services worker and a woman in danger reminding her audience that it could be any one of us sitting in that perilous passenger seat. The tension builds throughout the car ride — characters speaking in code, frantically searching for each other — creating an environment where, at this point, the audience really only cares about the woman’s survival. It’s a new take on an old fear that lends itself to a compelling story. 

In contrast, “The Neighbor’s Window” does the opposite: Clearly identified characters are developed and defined by the confines of their adjacent apartment buildings. On the surface, “The Neighbor’s Window” is like any other film about marriage and relationships as we age. Jealousy flies, wives are envious of their younger counterparts while husbands are yelled at for lounging around the house. But what distinguishes “The Neighbor’s Window” from other family dramas is the relationship between the two couples: There is no direct contact between the two. The audience and the main characters only know about this second couple because of a lack of drapes, the windows of the building across the street creating small movie panels within the viewing screen itself. Eventually, as these two parallel lives unfold, it becomes clear that “The Neighbor’s Window” is trying to highlight an age-old idea: You’re just watching through a window, everyone’s life seems perfect, but in reality, we’re all going through it. It’s a timely message in this age of social media. 

The other three nominated shorts, “Brotherhood,” “Saria” and “NEFTA Football Club,” take us all over the world, spanning a series of extremely specific scenarios that are still perfectly capable of connecting with their audiences. “Brotherhood,” for instance, looks at a family broken by ISIS. An estranged son returns home to a hostile environment, finding a disapproving father. The film asks us to consider what unconditional love means — would you forgive a child for abandoning family to pursue a cause? The story unfolds over a series of tense dinners and fun, brotherly activities. We see the relief of a mother who gets her child back and the excitement that a brother has returned. “Brotherhood” examines this family’s complicated dynamic, ultimately leaving its audience aching for the fleeting nature of their reunion. 

“Saria,” however, looks at what happens when someone doesn’t have a family at all. Based on the true story of the deaths at the Virgen de La Asuncion orphanage, “Saria” develops hopeful characters only to rip them away from the audience in a fire. The 2017 tragedy on which the film is based took 41 lives, all of which were listed in the credits following the film. With pointed hints at the timeline, “Saria” highlighted just how focused on America we can be. The fire occurred in January 2017, a month full of women’s marches and turmoil in the United States, ultimately resulting in a broad, baffling ignorance of the tragedies these girls faced. 

The Oscar shorts are an emotional rollercoaster. Immediately following the tears I had for “Saria,” I was crying again, but this time at the absurdity of “NEFTA Football Club.” The film follows two boys as they discover high-grade cocaine on a donkey that a pair of drug dealers lost in the desert. Though one brother understands the significance, the other simply sees these bags of white powder as laundry detergent, and hilarity ensues. A brilliant spotlight on the innocence of youth, “NEFTA Football Club” was the perfect end to a series of captivating short films. Unlike the Best Picture category, all five of these films deserved the nomination and, quite honestly, they all deserve to win.     


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