For the majority of people watching the Oscars, the short film categories are just good opportunities for bathroom breaks — after all, it’s not like many viewers have even seen the films in competition. Fortunately, the Little Theater is kind enough to annually screen the Live Action and Animated Short Film nominees before the ceremony (the Documentary Shorts, though, are strangely unrepresented).
This past weekend, I watched the Live Action Shorts — the first time I had attended one of these screenings — and was amazed to see what I had always been missing. Whereas almost every other Oscar category is a mix of worthy and thoroughly undeserving contenders, the Live Action Shorts category truly feels like the five “best” contenders. While some of the films certainly had their notable shortcoming, each nominee was, at the very least, a thoroughly enjoyable piece, so it’s good to see them earning proper recognition.
The first nominee is Tanel Toom’s “The Confession,” a British entry. The film begins with Sam (Lewis Howlett) and Jacob (Joe Eales), two nine-year-old friends grappling with the domineering implications of their Catholic school upbringing. The two friends privately joke, complain and innocently wonder about confession, and the idea that God is always watching them.
But the film takes an abrupt turn for the tragic, shifting this tale of slight adolescent rebellion into a prepubescent “Crimes and Misdemeanors.”
From here on out, the remaining minutes of “The Confession” are incredibly bleak — the short ends up being a much more brooding affair than its idyllic opening indicated. In fact, the conciseness of “The Confession” might actually be a disservice. Perhaps it’s the mark of any successful short film that the audience is left feeling like the story easily could have been stretched out to feature length, and “The Confession” certainly gave that impression. Its grim, shocking turns might have been even more striking within a more drawn-out narrative.
Next up is Ian Barnes’ “Wish 143,” another British entry. Whereas “The Confession” was effective for its one sudden, dramatic shift in mood, this film has a number of them — after all, it does encompass a rollercoaster coming-of-age experience in under 30 minutes. The film follows David (Samuel Peter Holland), a 15-year-old cancer patient who uses his hospital’s Make-A-Wish program, and local personal ads, to help achieve his dying wish: losing his virginity.
The hospital staff, of course, isn’t much pleased; they were hoping he had something in mind like meeting a celebrity or going on a fishing trip. David loves his rebellion as much as he loves the idea of eventual sex, and many of the film’s joyous high points follow his last minute attempts to act out (his brief feud with a strict bus driver is the short’s most hilarious moment). But the film also touches on David’s deepest moments of despair.The rejection he suffers during his quest isn’t just painful for him; it’s painful for viewers, too. “Wish 143” is an acute film that finds sweet relief in some of the harshest feelings of adolescence, and life.
Ivan Goldschmidt’s “Na Wewe,” from Belgium, stands far apart from all the other nominees. It’s the only one that doesn’t focus on the trappings of youth. Instead, cultural animosity and miscommunication are the topics here. The short is set in 1994 in Burundi, Africa, while the country was being ravaged by a civil war between the Hutus and the Tutsis. “Na Wewe” depicts this conflict by focusing on a single event — a bus filled with passengers of various nationalities is pulled over by a group of rebels who want to separate the Hutus from the Tutsis and eliminate everyone in the latter group.
Most of the film is an exercise in taut, extended suspense, as each visitor has to nervously plead or explain why his or her life should be saved. This plot culminates in a wonderful, unexpected climax — I’ll say no more, except that it has a perfect ending. “Na Wewe” is an amusing, even accessible look into a vast cultural conflict.
By the time Michael Creagh’s “The Crush,” from Ireland, was screened, many of its elements seemed familiar from the earlier shorts. It had an angsty grade-school hero, many moments of adolescent confusion and a dark, intense transition in tone. Maybe its second-to-last screening placement contributed to my feeling that “The Crush” was the weakest nominee, but the film definitely had flaws that would have stuck out in any context.
It begins from the love-drunk viewpoint of Ardal (Oran Creagh), an eight-year-old boy helplessly enamored with his schoolteacher, Miss Purdy (Olga Wehrly). He gives her a plastic ring at the end of school one day, which she delightfully accepts. When Ardal and his mom run into Miss Purdy on the street later, however, she’s now sporting an engagement ring from her conceited fiancé (Rory Kennan, excellently inhabiting the scumbag character).
The film then moves into very sinister territory, turning into a revenge story so warped you almost don’t want to believe it’s happening. But even that transition turns out to be a deception, which ultimately is even harder to believe. “The Crush” is an entertaining and well-made story, but the overall effect of its mood swings is far too difficult to completely accept.
I don’t know how the order of the short films was decided — they didn’t seem to go in any particular order, and “The Confession” was certainly an odd choice for an opener — but one thing that’s for sure is that the best was saved for last. Luke Matheny’s “God of Love,” the only American nominee, is a perfection of the short film form. Matheny not only wrote and directed the short, but also serves as its star, and with his oversized afro and irregular, fretful face, he’s one of those rare performers who looks every bit as painfully awkward as he acts.
Matheny plays Ray, a lonesome Brooklyn nightclub singer pining for his drummer, Kelly (Marian Brock), who’s too fixated on his best friend Fozzie (Christopher Hirsh) to even notice Ray exists.
Ray has been praying to God for over a year to win Kelly’s affections, and his prayers might just be answered once a mysterious package arrives for him: a set of darts with the power to win over anybody’s affection for six hours once they are struck by one. Ray — who performs a shtick of perfectly throwing darts while singing onstage — now has the chance to be the god of his own love life, and he milks the opportunity for everything it’s worth.
The same goes for Matheny himself. “God of Love” is the work of an inspired filmmaker who knows he has a great concept and runs wild with it. It’s a wise, incredibly creative meditation on love in all its misguided, unfair wonder. Whether or not Matheny receives a much-deserved Oscar for “God of Love,” be sure to check out his film and remember his name.
Silverstein is a member of the class of 2013.