Oscars: Short Films 'Kitbull,' 'Connie + Consuelo' Explore Unlikely Friendships

Kitbull - Publicity still - H 2019
Courtesy of Disney+

Pixar's animated short about a kitten and a pit bull and the live-action short about two friends in a retirement home delve into themes of chosen family.

Right now, Rosana Sullivan can't have a pet, despite how desperately she wants one. Her husband is allergic to cats and she has a toddler in the house, so getting a dog would be "insane," she says. So Kitbull, her Pixar SparkShort about an unlikely friendship between a stray black kitten and an abused pit bull, fulfilled that fantasy for her.

"I've always been obsessed with the nuances of animal behavior," says Sullivan, who at one point studied to be a veterinarian. The short, which at first stemmed from her desire to draw a black cat engaging in funny antics in the midst of feeling creatively blocked on another project, developed into a story of connection. "I realized I wanted a pit bull, too, and for these two to be outcast characters," she says, citing archetypal and breed prejudices against black cats and pit bulls. "I struggled with being very sensitive and shy when I was younger. So I wanted to explore the nature of connection, tied with how society treats animals, how animals treat each other. How friendships can really form out of nothing and nowhere."

She chose to lean into the pit bull's storyline about being forced into dogfighting in order to cultivate a story about empathy. "This story is about a kitten who keeps the world at claws' distance. Dogfighting is horrible, and the reality for pit bulls is a very tragic one," she says. "But for the kitten to truly step out of its comfort zone, it had to understand the pain of this dog. To really go beyond your own pain, you have to see the pain of others."

The way humans can negatively affect animals' well-being is also explored through a scene in which the pit bull frees the cat after it gets tangled up in the plastic rings from an eight-pack of soda. "The trash was definitely there as a terrible byproduct of human neglect," says Sullivan. "But it also represented the kitten's own baggage, how it prevents itself from truly thriving. There's so much meaning in those Coke rings."

Sullivan sees the central relationship of Kitbull, which premiered at L.A.'s El Capitan Theatre on Jan. 18 before it was released on YouTube Feb. 18, as a way to climb over the "metaphorical barbed-wire barriers between us," she says. "This relationship to me represented my own relationships with people who are important in my life, and how I learned to overcome that barrier to get closer to them. And that included getting over my own prejudices, my own fears and vulnerabilities, and risking being vulnerable. That's the core of their friendship for me, sharing compassion even with other humans we may not immediately connect with. I wish there was a little more of that in the world."

Carmella Casinelli hopes viewers will call up their best friends and grandparents after watching Connie + Consuelo, the live-action short she co-wrote and produced about two friends in a retirement home who are each other's chosen family. "Connie literally tells Consuelo, 'You're my family,' and I think it's nice to honor that, because how often do you actually say to your friends out loud, 'I choose you to be in my life forever?' "

As an only child, Casinelli wanted to look at the dynamics of family and a tight friendship later in life. "I definitely see friendships of my own becoming like Connie and Consuelo's in the future," she says. "I'm getting married next year. My college roommate is my maid of honor. We've had a shorthand for so many years of our lives. Going through those major life events with somebody bonds you the same way blood does."

Casinelli and her co-writer, Michael Cummings, drew inspiration from friendships they enjoy watching play out onscreen, as in Netflix's The Kominsky Method. "Seeing Alan Arkin and Michael Douglas chide each other but get over it in the next instant was something we felt is natural," she recalls. "That's just how true friendships are."

Christina Pickles and Angélica María, who play Connie and Consuelo, respectively, took it upon themselves to get to know each other before filming, even volunteering to bring their own clothes to fill out their characters' wardrobes.

In the 15-minute short, Connie, a former professional dancer, regrets prioritizing her career over motherhood, especially when she learns her daughter has died. After Connie discovers that she has a granddaughter, Gina (Montana Tucker), who herself is a dancer on a cam-girl website, Consuelo encourages her to pursue a relationship with the young woman.

"My only cousin came out as gay as an adult. He was really worried about my grandmother's reaction, and she handled it so well. I love the idea with Connie that she's so excited to find her granddaughter and have that connection to family," Casinelli says. "How she found her granddaughter or what her granddaughter does never enters the equation. She only sees the positive."

As Connie and Gina get to know each other, Connie particularly beams when seeing her dance just as she had, which director and choreographer Paul Becker helped make a reality in the storytelling. "We brought Paul on before we even wrote the script, and he helped define how much dancing we could incorporate into the piece," says Casinelli.

Having grown up dancing and seeing her grandparents at every recital, Casinelli says her relationship with them was a key part of her upbringing. "I never had a babysitter, never really went to day care as a child, because my grandparents were always there," she says. "The thought of not knowing one of them, especially because of the decisions that a parent would have made that impact the next generation, was something I felt audiences would immediately connect with when you only have 10 to 15 minutes to tell a story."

As Consuelo arranges for Connie and Gina to meet at the end of the film (which played at the L.A. Shorts International Film Festival in July), Casinelli imagines Gina would build a relationship with both women, further cementing their closeness. "I hope that people have a warm and fuzzy feeling after they see the film," she says. "Look at these two women who have formed this family. It doesn't matter what stage of your life, right? You can find that person and form that friendship and that familial bond."

This story first appeared in a December stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.