Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Countdown to the Oscars: Best Live Action Short

Best Live Action Short nominee Stutterer is a smart, powerful film about overcoming disability.

Welcome to Last Cinema Standing’s Countdown to the Oscars, our daily look at this year’s Academy Awards race. Be sure to check back every day this month for analysis of each of the Academy’s 24 categories.

Best Live Action Short

The nominees are:

Ave Maria
Day One
Everything Will Be Okay

The Academy likes two things above all others in its live-action shorts: hard-hitting emotion and high production value. If you can combine the two, you have got a nearly sure-fire winner on your hands such as last year’s The Phone Call from director Mat Kirkby – though that film had the added advantage of starring an Academy Award winner and a nominee. Films in the English language also tend to do well, primarily because they make a less accessible category for most members more accessible. Four of the last five winners have been in English.

However, when forced to choose among big stars, big emotions, or big productions, the Academy will almost always go with big emotions as evidenced by the win for Danish filmmaker Anders Walter’s excellent Helium over The Voorman Problem (big stars; in English) and That Wasn’t Me (big production). When it comes to voters marking a ballot days or weeks after they have seen the films, the short that hit them in the heart or the gut is the one they will remember. Only one film this year fits all the criteria we have discussed, but it will have to beat out a couple emotional heavy-hitters.

Day One – This one has it all. Set amid the war in Afghanistan, the production is impressive. Its leads, while not exactly famous, are popular supporting players in a number of well-known projects. And, it has one hell of a story, following a U.S. Army interpreter on her first day in the field. Director Henry Hughes was a paratrooper who did two combat tours in Afghanistan, so the material is close to his heart and has an authenticity lacking in more generic military-set films.

The interpreter, Feda (Layla Alizada), is embedded with a squad sent into a small village to arrest a bomb-maker. When they arrive, the bomb-maker’s wife goes into labor, and due to local custom, Feda, is the only one allowed to be in the room with the woman as she gives birth. When complications with the delivery arise, Feda is also the only one who can bridge the cultural and communication gap in this life-or-death situation.

The film’s ending muddies its gender politics just a bit, but the overall message about understanding different cultures and the universality of people is hard-won. Academy members will likely have a hard time passing up this one with all it has going for it, but its victory is in no way assured, mostly due to this next film.

Stutterer – This Irish drama from nominated director Benjamin Cleary and producer Serena Armitage is smaller in scope than Day One but tighter in its focus. The story follows Greenwood (Matthew Needham) through his daily life as he copes with an almost-debilitating speech impediment. It is impossible for him to speak with the call-center operator about his utility bill, he pretends to be deaf when people on the street ask for directions, and his attempt to stand up for an abused woman at a bus stop is noble but ill conceived.

He seems to have only two relationships in his life – with his kind, patient father (Eric Richard) and a young woman he chats with online, Ellie (Chloe Pirrie). The movie smartly gives us voiceovers from Greenwood in which he shares his thoughts, the things he wants to say but which do not come out that way. Hearing this inner dialogue is key to the film’s message. Greenwood is not slow or mentally challenged. His thoughts are as eloquent and complex as any of ours. He simply has a disability that keeps him from communicating those thoughts.

We see this as well in his online chats with Ellie, but when Ellie suggests they move their Internet relationship into the real world and meet for dinner or coffee, this is Greenwood’s worst fear. He is terrified to see her, perhaps because she will think he is dumb, so he avoids their meeting – the way he avoids calling the utility company or giving directions on the street. In this way, we see how a simple speech impediment – a disability that is invisible to the rest of us – can have life-altering consequences. Stutterer is a gem of a film that wears its heart on its sleeve and could be difficult to resist for the Academy.

Shok – The other film in the lineup, like Day One, with the magical combination of deep human emotions and a large-scale production is this Kosovo War drama from British director Jamie Donoughue. Set in a town torn apart by warring Serbian and Albanian factions, Shok, which means “friend” in Albanian, follows two young boys as they attempt to navigate everyday life amid a tragic, destructive civil war.

Petrit (Lum Veseli) talks his friend, Oki (Andi Bajgora), into giving him a ride on his new bike. The two Albanian boys ride into a Serbian camp and trade cigarette rolling papers for pocket change. We sense quickly the boys are in over their heads in this game. This is not a war based in abstraction but in a deeply held hatred of the enemy. Oki calls Petrit a traitor after Petrit’s operation gets Oki’s bike confiscated by the Serbians, and the basic thrust of the story is how Petrit comes to understand friendship, betrayal, and war at an age when many of us have difficulty with algebra.

Donoughue missteps by bookending his film with brief passages from the present day, but the main action is so compelling it is easy to forgive that small issue. The little details that fill the margins of the story really sell the human cost of the war, and the audience comes to understand just what it means to grow up in wartime. Shok is certainly the hardest of these five shorts to endure from an emotional standpoint, but its payoff packs a tremendous punch.

Everything Will Be Okay – What you think of this film will likely depend quite a bit on your life circumstances. I have no children, and as such, I viewed the events of the film with disgust and anger, seeing a clearly defined right-and-wrong scenario. Perhaps those with children will view the main character’s “plight” with more empathy. I had none.

It would be impossible to discuss further without getting into the specifics of the plot, which I will not do because the dawning realization of what is actually going on is among the film’s chief pleasures. At 30 minutes, Everything Will Be Okay is the longest nominee in the category this year, and German director Patrick Volrath uses the breathing room to build his characters and their world methodically and with purpose. The performances from stars Simon Schwarz and Julia Pointer are excellent, and Volrath has a wonderful command of his storytelling, but this would be an unlikely winner at best.

Ave Maria – The only film in the bunch that could be considered a comedy comes from nominated director Basil Khalil and producer Eric Dupont. Ave Maria tells the story of an Israeli family driving through the West Bank, trying to make it home before sundown on the Sabbath when they get into a car accident outside the home of five Catholic nuns who have taken a vow of silence. It may not sound exactly traditional, but the premise certainly lends itself to comedy, and Khalil has a great eye and ear for where to find jokes in the material.

The tagline on the film’s poster is “Rules are for breaking!” and the message of the film seems to be: What good are all these religious rules and customs if they prevent us from doing the right thing when it comes to helping others? It is a valuable moral and an important question to ask, particularly in times such as these when religion is used to divide people much more than to bring them together.

The film’s tone may make it seem more trivial than the other nominees – and it probably will not win for that reason – but it makes a strong point about the need for compromise and common sense over strict adherence to doctrine.

The final analysis

The shorts traditionally are the hardest category at the Oscars to predict since there are few if any precursors that pit these films against each other, and one never knows how many voters will actually see the movies. As I said at the top, there are some signposts you can look for to see if a film is on its way to a win, but for the most part, we are navigating in the dark. In my opinion, it probably comes down to Day One vs. Stutterer this year, and I am going to give the edge to Stutterer because I think those who see it will be absolutely charmed by it. It is the kind of film people can feel good about voting for, and that never hurts.

Will win: Stutterer
Should win: Shok

Tomorrow: Best Supporting Actress

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