'Oscar Nominated Shorts 2020: Live Action': Film Review

Brotherhood-Publicity Still-H 2019
Courtesy of Sundance Institute/Vincent Goneville Production
A tonally varied program displaying a consistently high level of artistry.

This year's touring package of Academy Award-nominated live-action shorts explores several forms of family peril without becoming overly grim.

Movie lovers with only a casual interest in compiling a complete set of Oscar-night predictions will likely find their most entertaining evening of short-film viewing to be the live-action category — a diverse bunch of films, spanning the globe, offering a wide range of emotional experience and just enough topical relevance to feel nutritious. It's the category most worth debating this year, but one for which arguments are unlikely to grow ugly.

The program's first two entries, both absolutely gripping, are similar in title but quite different experiences. Delphine Girard's A Sister refers to an evasive maneuver: When a woman finds herself trapped in a moving car with a man who has raped her but believes they're on okay terms, she pretends that she has to call the sister who's babysitting her daughter. In fact, she has dialed an emergency number, and the film tensely cuts back and forth between the two one-sided conversations. Girard shoots the victim from behind in the dark, cutting occasionally to fragments of the assault. The operator, though, is in an open, well-lighted room, a sterile distance from which she attempts to gather information and track the car.

Meryam Joobeur's Brotherhood, by contrast, concerns not just three actual brothers, but a figurative brotherhood one of them has (at least temporarily) embraced: The oldest of three Muslim boys raised by a Tunisian shepherd fled their village some time ago for Syria, where he joined ISIS. Veteran actor Mohamed Grayaa plays the patriarch, who deeply disapproves of the terrorist army; when the son returns from battle with a child bride, he's so offended by her youth and full burka that he will barely speak in the couple's presence. Things are more complicated than this, though, and while she's deftly revealing details, Joobeur simultaneously captures the textures of daily life in a world few Western viewers know anything about.

Also set in Tunisia, Yves Piat's Nefta Football Club takes a more lighthearted approach to serious issues: When two brothers goofing around in the desert find a stray donkey walking with Beats headphones over his ears, they stumble into a fortune's worth of drugs. The youngest has no idea what the white powder is, but his big brother realizes it might represent a life-changing financial windfall. If, that is, he can connect the goods with the right disreputable buyer.

Bryan Buckley, director of dozens of Super Bowl advertisements and 2017's The Pirates of Somalia, continues that film's true-story theme with Saria, a heartbreaking imagining of the events leading to an infamous 2017 fire in a Guatemalan orphanage. We see mostly the lead-up to the event. As the film tells it, an overcrowded group of girls are routinely abused verbally and forced to have sex with strangers. We listen in as Saria and her sister quietly hatch an escape plan — one that grows into a mass exodus triggered by a riot staged by the kids. But the escape won't last for most of these girls.

Lastly, Marshall Curry (director of the Cory Booker doc Street Fight) offers a grass-is-greener tale of urban voyeurism, The Neighbor's Window. It starts off as a look at self-pitying middle-aged parents (maybe you wouldn't resent each other so much if you didn't have three kids?), whose misery deepens when young, sexy neighbors move in across the street and do nothing but have sex with the lights on. If the next act is a little neat in lesson-teaching terms, the film concludes with a nice double-twist, leaving its protagonists perhaps a little wiser.

Distributor: ShortsTV
Directors: Delphine Girard, Meryam Joobeur, Yves Piat, Bryan Buckley, Marshall Curry