Having watched and reviewed the Oscar-nominated live action short films over the past few years, I can say it’s an ironclad rule of thumb that at least one of the movies will feature a child being placed in jeopardy.
In “2019 Oscar Nominated Live Action Shorts,” there are four.
I don’t know if that’s a result of the Academy’s nominating committee gravitating toward those films, or filmmakers knowing that such films play well and adjusting accordingly. But it makes this year’s crop of live action films a pretty grim and manipulative bunch.
The films screen together as a 109-minute collection at AMC Madison 6, and are also part of the Best Picture Showcase at Marcus Palace and Marcus Point on Saturday, Feb. 23.
The most stomach-churning of the bunch is “Detainment,” Vincent Lambe and Darren Mahon’s film dramatization of a notorious 1993 case in which two 10-year-old British boys abducted and murdered a two-year-old boy, Jamie Bulger.
The film’s screenplay is drawn from transcripts of the police interrogations of the two boys, as the detectives try and pin down the boys — one cold and evasive, the other in hysterics — about the crime. There are scenes reenacting the boys abducting Bulger from a shopping mall but, mercifully, none of the murder itself.
Yet, what is the point of “Detainment”? Lambe and Mahon seem to have no insight or point of view of the crime, not on why the boys did it, not on how it affected the community at large. It’s well-made and restrained, but ultimately feels like an act of unseemly voyeurism.
Jeremy Comte and Maria Gracia Turgeon’s “Fauve” also looks at two boys of about the same age, but in different circumstances. The boys run wild through a quarry in the Quebec countryside, daring each other to do more and more dangerous stunts.
We fear that they will go too far, and, of course, they do. “Fauve” captures the wildness of these two boys, who become almost feral without adult supervision. But once the mounting dread subsides and the terrible thing happens, there’s really nowhere for “Fauve” to go.
Rodrigo Sorogoyen and María del Puy Alvarado’s “Mother” is the most technically accomplished of the films, shot in a single take and looking at child endangerment from an unusual point of view. Marta Nieto plays a mother who gets a phone call from her 6-year-old son, who is supposed to be on vacation in France with his father. But the father is nowhere to be found, and the son is left abandoned on a beach.
“Mother” is an effective exercise in building suspense, as the mother frantically tries to figure out where her son is while keeping him calm. But, like “Fauve,” the film doesn’t really build to anything, and doesn’t know what to do except make the viewer anxious.
Guy Nattiv and Jaime Ray Newman’s “Skin” at least puts its child in a more indirect form of jeopardy. Troy (Jackson Robert Scott) has loving parents who dote on him. But they’re also neo-Nazis, and Troy sees that side of his father when he brutally beats an African-American man outside a supermarket.
There’s a potentially interesting drama here about growing up in a family that can be full of so much love and so much hate. But “Skin” blows it with a ridiculous twist ending intended to be profound, but misses by a mile. Nattiv is apparently adapting "Skin" into a feature film; he'd better leave that ending behind.
After all that peril and strife, the final nominated movie of the bunch, Marianne Farley and Marie-Hélène Panisset's poignant “Marguerite,” feels like a tonic. Marguerite (Beatrice Picard) is an elderly woman who bonds with her live-in caregiver Rachel (Sandrine Bisson). As she learns about Rachel’s life, Marguerite begins to revisit the choices she made in her own life.
It’s such a small story, especially when compared to all the death and danger in the other four films. And all the more powerful for it.