Nasty, Brutish, and Short

The Oscar-Nominated Short Films, Bad For Boys

Typically, most of us only see brief clips of Oscar-nominated short films during the ceremony itself. Then they disappear straight down the rabbit hole of time. This year, the Academy has tried something different. Various art-housey places around the country are screening the shorts, animated, live-action, and documentary. And the public gets to vote on social media to predict the winners.

How cool, I thought. So I went to the local film society, prepared to spend the better part of a weekend enjoying the best short stories global cinema has to offer. The program of live-action shorts fit my schedule first.  I went in knowing absolutely nothing about what was to come.

Madre, from Spain, appeared first in the program. A young divorced mother, hanging out in an apartment with her own mother, gets a phone call from her six-year-old son, who’s on vacation with his dad. The father has disappeared, leaving the kid all alone on a deserted beach. The movie quickly and skillfully builds tension through a series of phone calls, even as the action never leaves the apartment. It was masterfully done, if a little bleak.

Next came Fauve, straight outta Quebec. In this grotesque little number, a couple of pre-teen boys from the sticks fart around in an abandoned mining area. Then one of them drowns in a pool of cement. It was nicely done, but horrifying to watch. I found myself thinking: well, that’s two movies about dead boys. Next up should be a nice comedy.

No such fortune arrived with the sad third film, also French-Canadian.  In Marguerite, an old woman, clearly in the last weeks of her life, uncorks a life-long lesbian yearning when she learns that her caregiver is gay. The film featured lots of shots of clocks ticking and tea brewing. It has a muted and wistful mood. But at least it doesn’t feature a boy drowning in a slurry pit.

Detainment

Hoo-boy then for film number four, Ireland’s Detainment, based on a real-life story of two Liverpool pre-teen boys who kidnapped a toddler at a shopping mall and then raped and murdered him. The movie uses real interrogation transcription. “Raw” would be a mild way to describe the result. It literally ripped out my guts and strangled me with them. Like all the others, this film was skillfully made and gripping, but watching it felt like a punishment.

That feeling continued with film number five, Skin. Directed by Guy Nattiv and starring Danielle McDonald, this American-made movie had the most popular touch of the five movies. Fox Searchlight acquired it for distribution. It could definitely find an audience on its own, and it could also stand up to being made into a full-length feature. Loving, committed parents raise a sensitive and intelligent boy in poor rural surroundings. Together, the family enjoys guns and thrash metal and riding on couches dragged behind pickup trucks. But the film hints that a dark white-supremacist tendency lurks behind the peaceful metalhead vibe.

Then the boy witnesses a brutal beating. While I won’t reveal the twist ending, it contains a brutal metaphor for the legacy of racism and violence that Americans are unwittingly passing down to their kids. The public overwhelmingly chose this one to win the Oscar. Out of five choices, they gave it 57 percent of the votes. That makes sense.

Skin

It contains American themes, for an American award.

My bludgeoning complete, I left the theater feeling like garbage strewn on the railway tracks. In fewer than two hours, I’d witnessed the kidnapping of a grade-schooler, the murder of a toddler, the accidental death of a middle-schooler, and unspeakable violence committed by other male children.

The films displayed a weird global neurosis about boys, specifically white boys. Apparently, we should be very afraid of them. Or maybe we should fear for them. Maybe they’re actually Satan reborn, as an actually entertaining movie about a devil boy once postulated.

This year’s Best Picture nominees include an awesome black superhero movie, two crowd-pleasing musical dramas, and a satirical political biopic. The movies offer something for everyone! This year’s best live-action shorts offer little but boys who kill or get killed. I voted for the one about the sad old repressed lesbian. At least it didn’t make me paranoid about my son.

Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of ten semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. He's written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

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