'Oscar Nominated Shorts 2018: Documentary, Program B': Film Review

Reasons for optimism amid the gloom.

A pair of featurettes showcase those addressing two pressing social issues.

If Program B is an impersonal title for this showcase of Oscar-nominated documentary short films, call it instead The Problem Solvers: Two American filmmakers look at subjects causing most observers to despair and find, in a very localized way, heroes to celebrate. Both very fine movies from established journalists, they're each likely to draw a healthy chunk of the Academy's votes.

The more unlikely of the pair is Elaine McMillion Sheldon's Heroin(e), which could easily (if glibly) be described as "the feel-good opioid crisis movie." Traveling to Huntington, West Virginia, which it refers to as "the overdose capital" of America (other towns vying for that unwanted title include Dayton, Ohio), the film devotes its attention to three women trying to stop the deaths and turn addicts' lives around.

Jan Rader, deputy chief at the fire department, says she responds to calls of "five, six, seven overdoses daily," and seemingly has no point at which enough is enough: A man who got clean after spending his entire adult life on drugs says with awe that "she saved my life twice a week" for years, keeping him going until he could kick drugs and start his own campaign to help others. Necia Freeman, of Brown Bag Ministries, thought she'd do some good just by driving through town, handing out sack lunches with religious tracts in them. Now, though, her life is wrapped up with those she serves, including the community of streetwalkers who pay for their habits via prostitution.

And there's Judge Patricia Keller, who runs her drug court like a friendly gathering of equals whose only goal is quashing a public-health problem that hurts both addicts and their neighbors. Friendly but not condescending, she thanks those before her when they're honest about relapses, doles out reasonable punishment when they aren't and presides over festive graduation ceremonies when offenders have stayed clean long enough to be off the government's radar. All three women have seen enough wreckage of the opioid epidemic to give up hope, but (despite seeming to have no immediate relationship with drug abuse) have managed to inspire those around them; Sheldon pays them tribute without painting them as saints we can't emulate.

In Knife Skills, Thomas Lennon finds a project in Cleveland, Ohio, that hopes to launch a high-quality French restaurant staffed almost entirely by recently released prisoners. Here, too, we have daunting realities: We hear the depressing statistics about how many ex-cons wind up back in jail, and even in this instance, plenty of those who start don't make it through the six-month program.

But Lennon spends time with several men (and one woman) who see this demanding job — it amounts to a high-intensity culinary school, with workers learning the finer points of cheese, wine and kitchen technique — as a way to break out of a cycle. Viewers made uneasy by the fact that these mostly black workers are being led by two white men (the imported French chef and the restaurant's founder, Brandon) may be surprised to learn that Brandon has his own prior convictions, and appears to be more haunted by feelings of worthlessness than those guilty of more violent crimes.

Covering just the first cycle of ex-prisoners to work for Edwin (as their restaurant is named), Knife Skills finds much to celebrate but by no means is certain the project will be self-sustaining. It is, however, persuasive in arguing that the recently incarcerated are better served by being presented with novel challenges than by being told to go back into society and start from the bottom.

Distributors: Magnolia, Shorts TV
Directors: Elaine McMillion Sheldon, Thomas Lennon

81 minutes