The Oscar nominees for Live Action Short this year are a mixed bag in topic, tone and execution. The five nominees touch on everything from the mistreatment of deaf British school children to the systematic racism that existed a century after abolition in the South — sometimes testing the integrity of the edges of dusty theater seats, and at times accomplishing no more than a chorus of groans from the audience to skip on to the next one.
“DeKalb Elementary” depicts in real time the harrowing half-hour that follows an armed intruder entering a school. All one scene, shot entirely in the school’s front office, featuring only two main characters throughout, “DeKalb” finds success in its simplicity. It doesn’t dress up the conflict to heighten the stakes because it doesn’t need to — more than enough tension is created by virtue of the situation. “DeKalb” is an ode to human empathy and understanding in the tight spaces where it ought to exist the least, and strong performances from everyone involved make it a front runner for this award.
“The Silent Child” has a plot too convoluted for a short. It pits a social worker against her patient Libby’s mother when the mother makes Libby forgo learning sign language to learn lip reading and speech therapy in its place. Difficulty explaining the plot in a sentence does not bode well for a 20 minute run time. The short could have been saved had it not lay such focus on the mother. It tries too hard to build her up as some misguided villain while losing sight of the far more interesting relationship between Libby and her caretaker. The filmmakers throw up statistics about deaf children suffering in the British public school system before the credits roll, making the whole thing feel more like a manipulative humane society ad than an Oscar nominated short film.
“My Nephew Emmitt” tells an unfortunate tale of Black subjugation in postwar America. Slavery had been outlawed almost a century before, yet Moses Wright and his family are powerless to stop a group of white men who come to take away their visiting relative for flirting with a white woman in town. “Emmitt” is reminiscent of this year’s “Mudbound” in both setting and sentiment. It’s certainly not as fleshed out as the feature film (not that it realistically could be), but manages to carry a similar weight.
“The Eleven O’Clock” is the only comedic nominee of the five. The short plays off the gag of a psychiatrist whose patient is living the delusion that he is a psychiatrist, too, leading to some funny moments within the confusion. But the strong concept leaves itself a little long, and almost outstays its welcome. In a way, the interaction between the two men devolves too quickly, becoming loud and absurd too fast, breaking the suspension of disbelief that either one of the characters shown could be an actual trained medical professional. It’s difficult. “Eleven” is unique in this field of five for its playful approach, but falls short for that same reason. There isn’t enough meat behind it, yet it is a refreshing change of pace from the darker tone that pervades the rest of the category.
“Watu Wote” mirrors the real-life 2015 story of a group of Muslims who protect their fellow Christian bus passengers from a group of Al-Shabaab terrorists. The Muslims conceal the Christians within their ranks, staring down rifle barrels without giving them up. “Wote” starts off slow, taking its time establishing the main character with Muslim prejudices so that they can be squashed later on. The actual event of the bus being held up doesn’t occur until about halfway through the short, but the execution of the sequence doesn’t disappoint.