a theatre, film & pop culture review
Every year, the Academy tests our patience with its live action short film nominees, somehow always awarding the most narcissistic film (see last year’s winner, The Curfew). This year is slightly better than usual, lacking a super-hipster nominee (à la God of Love), so we have that to be thankful for.
Not to worry, though, because we also have Esteban Crespo’s Aquel No Era Yo (That Wasn’t Me) which is the worst, most melodramatic vision of white savior guilt since god knows what. The film purports to be about the long-lasting trauma suffered by child soldiers in Africa as caused by their brutalized recruitment, but it’s actually about the white (Spanish) couple (Alejandra Lorente and Gustavo Salmerón), captured by said soldiers and, particularly, the woman’s debasement and consequent bloodlust-turned-protectiveness. This short is offensive on multiple levels, and not least of which because it employs every contrivance in the Manipulative Moviemaker’s Toolkit, including golden-hour cinematography and a concluding tone of gut-twistingly smug forgiveness. Quite simply, it’s gross.
Thankfully, the films get relatively better. There’s Selma Vilhunen & Kirsikka Saari’s Pitääkö Mun Kaikki Hoitaa? (Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?), the slight Finnish contender. At only seven minutes long, this is the briefest and the comic relief of the batch, about a harried mom trying to rally her problem family into a presentable bunch for a wedding they’re running late for. It has a couple silly laughs, but it feels like an overlong ad for Tide or some kind of organizational product.
Helium is the nominee that packs the biggest emotional punch. Anders Walter and Kim Magnusson’s tearjerker follows the most-adorable-blonde-Danish boy dying in a children’s hospital as he’s befriended by a friendly bearded janitor. The latter comforts the boy with tall tales of an alternate heaven called Helium where Zeppelin-like airships float through a pink-purply sky sparkling with kaleidoscopic snowflakes en route to long-lost family members. These sequences have a lovely, magical-fantasy quality, and no doubt this is the sentimental pick of the bunch, which could bode well for it (there was a lot of sniffling in the theater when I saw it).
But English-language films tend to fare a bit better in this category, and Mark Gil and Baldwin Li’s The Voorman Problem has that going for it, a 2013 BAFTA nomination and multiple festival nominations, and star power to boot (the last star showing in this category was the 2012 winner, The Shore, with Ciarán Hinds). Martin Freeman, employed here to better effect than he’s ever been in any of the Hobbit films, stars as a skeptical psychiatrist tasked to evaluate a prisoner who claims to be God. It’s a pithy comedic sketch that depicts God as a blasé being with a cheeky sense of humor (He makes Belgium disappear, because why not?). It’s clever, but not pompous, and so the closest to the Academy’s “type” that we have this year. It’ll likely win, if its humor is able to overcome the weepy Helium.
What won’t win, because it’s essentially a feature-length truncated to thirty minutes — the longest runtime of any of the nominees — is Xavier Legrand and Alexandre Gavras’s nail-biting domestic abuse drama, Avant Que de Tout Perdre (Just Before Losing Everything). This multiple-festival winner feels like a glimpse into a larger, more troubling story, but what we get is its climax: the actual flight of a French mother (Léa Drucker) and her two children from an abusive husband. But we don’t know that’s what’s happening until a while into the film, as Legrand and Gavras give us a piece here and a piece there to puzzle together what’s happening. This is well-calibrated direction that slowly builds to a suspenseful, alarming pitch. The final shot is quietly terrifying, and all the more so because the short is so realistically filmed and superbly acted. Sadly, its lack of subtext may work against it, but mostly it’s just not self-satisfied enough to win.