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Tales of boyhood and family in this year’s Oscar-nominated live-action short films

"Fauve" follows two boys on their journey through an empty wilderness (courtesy of Shorts TV).

The collection of the 2019 Oscar-nominated live-action short films revolve around themes of youth, masculinity, family, motherhood and ultimately, as Oscar-nominated projects often do, the human experience. “Fauve,” “Detainment” and “Skin” place young boys at the center of their stories, while “Marguerite” and “Madre” feature only women on screen (“Marguerite” also being the only nominated live-action short film directed by a woman). Hailing from Ireland, Canada, Spain and the United States, each film is visually captivating and strikingly artistic, and they all demand you take a closer look.  

“Fauve” is the intimately personal project of Canadian director, writer and editor Jeremy Comte. A winner of the Special Jury Prize at Sundance 2018, the film follows two young boys as they adventure in a wilderness. They are seemingly the sole inhabitants. After stumbling upon a surface mine, their adventuring takes a horrific turn for the worst, and the story becomes less about the wildness of boyhood and more about the reality of survivor’s guilt. Comte was inspired by his own childhood in the countryside and his fears of the exact scenario shown in the film. This connection is evident, as there is a tangible painful sense of reality throughout the film, as if the story could or has happened many times. “Fauve” features dynamic performances from young actors Felix Grenier and Alexandre Perreault, whose raw energies balance and bounce expertly off one another to elevate the shock you feel at the end of the film. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from what should be a mundane film — little to no score, muted colors and selective focus on one specific object. Comte’s style is simultaneously mystic and simple, refusing to fit itself into one category of production. He switches shooting styles halfway through to emphasize the forced process of maturity that the boys have undergone. The film could have benefited from additional exploration into the relationship between the two boys, rather than just revealing to the viewer a detrimental break in the bond between them and expecting a strong emotional reaction. Nevertheless, the ending leaves you with a pit in your stomach and a wish for further reconciliation, but a strong belief in youth’s ability to persevere.

Irish director Vincent Lambe’s “Detainment” focuses on the true story of the 1993 kidnapping and murder of two-year-old James Bulger in England by ten-year old boys Robert Thompson and Jon Venables. Thompson and Venables then became the youngest convicted murderers of the twentieth century. The film is adapted from interview transcripts and records from the arrest and trial as it flashes between the questioning of the boys in real-time and the events of the kidnapping in the past. Lambe’s camera shots appear to be handheld, making the film seem less like a formal production and more like homemade footage. Thus, he creates an experience that places the viewer close, admittedly too close, to children who have committed a horrible crime, forcing that viewer to sit in on their interviews with police and try to piece together the story for themselves. Yet, I couldn’t bring myself to look away. As in “Fauve,” the performances of the child actors Ely Solan and Leon Hughes are stunning and heartbreaking, evoking in the audience both pity for the fall of such young boys and rage for the murder of an innocent baby. Some critics have asserted that Lambe’s portrayal of these convicted criminals is too sympathetic. I agree with some of these sentiments, and I feel the film ends very abruptly at the most intriguing part of the story — when the boys confess to the murder. It utilizes title cards to describe the complicated lives the boys continued on to live. I was itching for a more complex story to be told, rather than one that focused solely on the interrogations and confessions.  

The American nomination “Skin,” directed by Guy Nattiv, tells of the racial violence that erupts in a small town when a black man named Jaydee (played by Ashley Thomas) has an innocent interaction with Troy (Jackson Robert Scott), the son of white supremacist Johnny Aldd (Jonathan Tucker). In the parking lot, Johnny and his skinhead friends beat Jaydee within an inch of his life. Out of all five nominated films, “Skin” may be the hardest pill to swallow. The twist at the ending is shocking, something straight out of “The Twilight Zone,” and the revenge taken on Johnny results in the ultimate taste of his own medicine. Nattiv’s dive into the surreal at the end of the film is superb, reminiscent of the race-related horrors conveyed in Jordan Peele’s “Get Out.” Both directors tactfully turn the tables and leaves the viewer in states of awe and dread. Child actor Jackson Robert Scott gives a prime performance.  I was struck by the painful innocence and confusion he shows while being surrounded by such hate and violence. However, the film falls short because it does not address the implications of violent racist attitudes being passed down to younger generations. Without spoiling the film, the ending features Troy taking charge and seemingly “saving the day,” and when I first watched it, I breathed a huge sigh of relief and my own desire for revenge had been satisfied. But upon further reflection, the repercussions of Troy’s actions at the end will weigh heavy on audiences’ hearts and will call for a more in-depth analysis of the fragility of future generations.

Turning now to the female-centric films, Spanish director Rodrigo Sorogoyen’s “Madre” is a thrilling project, just under 18 minutes. It chronicles the breakdown of a divorced mother as she talks on the phone with her six-year old son. He claims his father left him alone on a secluded beach. Marta (Marta Nieto) is about to head to dinner with her mother Madre (Blanca Apilánez) when she gets the call, and she spends the rest of the film juggling her panicked son Iván (voiced by Álvaro Balas, for he never appears on screen) and a fumbling police officer. “Madre” is filmed wholly in one take, the camera following Marta and Madre around the apartment but never actually leaving the home. The lack of cuts increases the focus, intensity and above all, worry that permeates the film, leaving me (and presumably most viewers) unable to take a full breath until the eighteen minutes are up. Sorogoyen’s writing shines through as well as Marta asks Iván all the right questions and speaks over the police, refusing to let them walk all over her. The power of the film is derived not from the material itself but the onslaught-esque way it is presented to the viewer. However, while “Madre” asserts dominance as a compact, teeth-grinding, slow-twist-of-the-knife kind of film, its abrupt ending, much like in “Detainment,” leaves the viewer at the most dynamic part of the story. It struggles to elevate itself beyond the jarring shock of a short suspenseful film shot all at once, leaving the project as simply an example of exhilarating filmmaking craft, absent of any more impactful message. Thankfully, Sorogoyen has reportedly just finished a continuation of the short, and I will definitely be on the lookout for it.

While all of the nominees this year portray high stakes and emotional chaos in the present, “Marguerite,” written and directed by Quebec-born Marianne Farley is rooted in the past, painting a few days in the life of Marguerite (Béatrice Picard) an old woman who finds an emotional connection with her nurse Rachel (Sandrine Bisson). Amidst health issues and a desire for intimacy, Marguerite finds comfort in revealing tales of her lost love to Rachel. The film is a fairly quiet project, with sparse dialogue featuring everything from medical terms and reminders to old confessions to questions of desire and freedom. Béatrice Picard delivers a spectacular performance as a woman resigned to the life she now lives, but still willing to indulge her curiosities. “Marguerite” is simple, heartbreaking and amusing, a project that doesn’t ask too much of its viewer. We sit with Marguerite for mundane moments, looking at an old photo album, gazing out the window, drinking tea, but we soon learn the weight of those mundane moments, and we realize the long and winding road Marguerite took to get where she is. Farley simply presents the story as it exists in her world, not leaving too much room for the viewer to object or question, and I felt comfortable in the ease and closeness of the film. The character of Rachel, however, seems to hint at something larger, more complex, yet I didn’t feel she was as fully fleshed out as she could have been. “Marguerite” is a portrait, in every sense of the word, of not only old loves lost but also new loves found.

What should’ve won: “Fauve”

The winner: “Skin”

Contact Marika Tron  at mtron ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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