Mother is a 19-minute film from Spain that consists solely of a series of phone calls between a young mother, and the six-year-old son on the other line, whose dad has mysteriously left him alone on a beach in France. As it happens, this woman's own mother is in the apartment, so the two women are the only characters ever seen onscreen. (The boy is the only other voice heard.) The "story," such as it is, is simply this young woman becoming more and more hysterical as it becomes clear her son may have been abandoned and she cannot figure out exactly where he is. It ends with no resolution to speak of, leaving me to wonder what the point was -- to illustrate a typical mother's nightmare? Skilled performances notwithstanding, a short like this makes me wonder how slim the pickings are when film shorts are put up for Oscar consideration to begin with.
Fauve is the second of two Canadian live action shorts up for contention this year, this one, at 16 minutes, the shortest of the bunch. A couple French-Canadian kids are just hanging out on abandoned railroad tracks, and, eventually, a surface mine. And basically, their youthful ignorance of nature and physics gets the best of them. I won't spoil what that means exactly, except to say that this one turns surprisingly dark. With again only three characters, though, this short does also illustrate how a little can go along way.
And then there's Marguerite, a 19-minute film, also French-Canadian, that gets my vote as the best of these nominees. Here we have only two characters: the title character, an elderly woman in need of daily in-home assistance, and her much younger woman caretaker. We see plenty of their routine before a phone call from her partner reveals the caretaker to be gay. The way Marguerite's face changes at this revelation made me slightly nervous, but it turned out to be something much more bittersweet than negative. Eventually, we learn what decades-old memories this triggers in Marguerite, and as she tentatively opens up to her caretaker, it becomes something quite moving -- and, in its way, a sad reminder of how different things were for people half a century ago.
If you're looking for something truly disturbing, look no further than Detainment, a 30-minute film from Ireland about the youngest convicted murderers of the 21st century. Based on actual interrogation transcripts, two 10-year-old boys are interviewed separately about what they did with a random toddler they spontaneously decided to abduct from a shopping center and do heinous things to. Thankfully, none of the specific horrors are depicted onscreen; the story that unfolds here is how the two boys start off with total denials and conflicting accounts, until bit by bit, increasingly horrible truths come out. If nothing else, this one serves as a cautionary tale: never let your young child out of your sight for a second, no matter how harmless it may appear to be to do so.
Live-action shorts often have a "clever twist" at the end of them, especially American ones, and the 20-minute Skin is no exception. (To be fair, the real difference year is that only one of the shorts ends with such a twist.) When this one ended, foremost in my mind was to wonder whether the director was white or black: Guy Nattiv is a white guy. And, okay, it does seem difficult to imagine a black director creating a film this pointedly about a racist being taught a lesson. Skin has "white guilt" built into its DNA, albeit with more subtlety than usual. This film is generally competently made, although the final moment is about as predictable as it gets.