Watching the five Oscar-nominated live-action short films in succession—as they are being shown at the Institute of Contemporary Art on selected days this spring—is quite the schizophrenic experience. Since the Academy makes no distinction in this category by genre or nationality, these films range from absurdist comedy to high melodrama, and hail from countries like Belgium and Ireland. The shorts’ eclectic mix of styles and influences might be a detriment to the viewing experience, if the five films were not of a uniformly high quality. As it is, these short films take audiences on an emotional rollercoaster to rival the best of feature-length cinema.
If one thread connects the five otherwise disparate nominees, it is the presence of children. In “The Confession” (dir. Tanel Toom), two small Catholic boys misinterpret the importance of their first confession and commit an innocent prank in order to have something to confess—a prank that spirals quickly out of their control. “Wish 143” (dir. Ian Barnes) features a teenage boy with terminal cancer who tells a charitable foundation along the lines of Make-A-Wish that he wants to lose his virginity before he dies. “The Crush” (dir. Michael Creagh), a highlight of the evening, is the story of a remarkably brave primary schooler who challenges his teacher’s boyfriend to a duel for her affections. And the only non-English language film of the night, “Na Wewe” (dir. Ivan Goldschmidt), centers on a young boy suspected of being Tutsi during the Burundi genocide, and who becomes a flashpoint in the ethnic conflict. The only exception to the rule is the actual winner of the award, “God of Love” (dir. Luke Matheny), a surrealist comedy starring a socially inept singer and darts player who is given a box of “love darts” with which he attempts to woo his long-time flame.
“God of Love,” contrary to the Academy’s decision, is not the best film of the five, despite its undeniable charms. To its credit, the film’s black and white, Charlie Kaufman-esque aesthetic is an effective companion to its strange storyline. Lead actor and director Luke Matheny is excellent as Ray, delivering his dialogue with perfectly calibrated deadpan existential angst: “As you know, I’ve been praying for your assistance in winning the affections of one Kelly Moran, which I’ve been consistently clear is the only thing I have ever really prayed for, at all,” he complains in an aside to God. But for all its endearing oddities, “God of Love” leaves viewers a little unfulfilled, since the easily guessed revelation of the piece’s conclusion drains the film of dramatic tension early on. Though the Academy deserves some credit for their decision to recognize a comedy—a rarity among the long-form awards—the left-field humor of “God of Love” cannot match some of the other contenders’ emotional impact.
At the other end of the spectrum from “God of Love” is “The Confession,” whose opening shot—two boys dragging what appears to be a body through the woods—sets the tone for a deeply affecting film about unexpected consequences. The film is propelled by its adolescent leads’ acting and stunning cinematography, which complements the piece’s languorous pacing and rural setting with extended shots of fields and—in one particularly touching moment—the two young boys lying on their backs on a blanket of brown leaves. Lewis Howlett as protagonist Sam exudes genuine confusion and loss as the plot spirals out of his control, and the film’s final scene—in which he breaks down in the confession booth—is the most wrenching moment of the evening.
It isn’t the best, however: that honor belongs to “The Crush.” Eight-year-old Ardal Travis (Oran Creagh) is one of the gutsier male leads in recent romantic comedy memory, challenging his teacher’s boyfriend to a duel to the death and bringing what appears to be a real gun to the confrontation. “Are you just gonna stand there and watch one of your second classers blow my head off?” the boyfriend (Rory Keenan) asks Miss Purdy (Olga Wehrly). “Have you not seen ‘City of God?’ Get a fuckin’ cop or something!” Creagh’s utterly flat delivery is comic genius, and the film’s final reversal makes “The Crush” the most rewarding of the five nominees.
The final two shorts, though still excellent, pale slightly in comparison to these two. “Na Wewe” rests on a brilliant premise, upending expectations for a film about genocide to make an incisive point about the fluid nature of ethnic identity. But perhaps as a result, the plot never rises to a climax. Instead, the film’s redemptive moment—in which the Hutu militants are distracted from their interrogation by a U2 song—comes off as slightly preposterous. “Wish 143” similarly rests on a reversal of expectations. Though the teenage lead is convincingly distraught, the film lacks the memorable flair of its competitors.
The five in sequence, starting strong with “The Confession” and ending with the victor, create a remarkably cohesive, powerful film-going experience, despite—or perhaps because of—the pieces’ spanning such a wide range of genres and emotional timbres. Together, the shorts serve as an excellent reminder that great filmmakers do not confine themselves to the feature-length format.
—Staff writer Daniel K. Lakhdhir can be reached at email@example.com.