Review: Oscar Live Action Shorts

The five 2020 Live-Action Short Film Oscar Nominees hail from four different countries—Belgium, Tunisia, France and the USA—and average about twenty minutes each. Aside from their runtimes, the films don’t have all that much in common, as they explore everything from a fatal fire at a Mexican orphanage to a Brooklyn family’s odd connection with the neighbors they can see through their living room window.

Directed by Marshall Curry, The Neighbors’ Window stars Maria Dizzia and Greg Keller as a Brooklyn couple juggling their work, raising three small kids and their own relationship when a younger, hotter couple moves in next door and they get a front row seat to their lives. As time goes by, Alli and Jacob watch their neighbors’ lives unfold as well, until a turn of events that neither of them could see coming. This marks Curry’s fourth Oscar nomination, though the previous three were all for his documentary work. His shift into narrative gets awfully close to predictability, but strong performances and a palpable sincerity make the film a capsule on connection and the passage of time.

The Belgian drama A Sister (Une soeur) wastes no time in dropping audiences right into the action, as a young woman riding in a car asks the man driving if she can call her sister to check in on her daughter. We soon learn she’s actually called emergency services, and the operator on the other side of the line (Veerle Baetens) has to figure out exactly what’s going on as Alie (Selma Alaoui) talks to her as though she’s just called to say hello. It quickly dawns on her, however, that Alie hasn’t chosen to be in this car and wherever she’s being taken; filmmaker Delphine Girard navigates the back and forth between the women with a tense focus. Though Alaoui’s performance is central to the narrative, Baetens makes impressively clear how the heavy the weight of her responsibility is in under the circumstances.

A featured selection in 2019’s Sundance Shorts tour, Brotherhood is a multinational production (directed by Meryam Joobeur) about a grown son who returns to his family’s home in rural Tunisia with a new wife and stories from his time in battle. It’s a deeply intimate affair, with tight closeups and confined spaces plunging us into the family’s daily life. Malik’s return is one of confusion and confrontation, and as secrets about his time away are revealed, his parents—particularly his father—don’t necessarily welcome him with open arms. It’s a testament to the power of a well-told story that it need not be 90 minutes (or longer) to have an impact.

Filmmaker Yves Piat has a bit of fun with an otherwise daunting premise in Nefta Football Club. As two drug smugglers look for the lost donkey that’s trained to transport their cocaine (they have it wear headphones with Adele’s music on it), Abdallah (Mohamed Ali Ayari) and Mohamed (Eltayef Dhaoui) are headed back to town on their scooter. The boys come across the lost donkey and decide to claim its inventory for their own, though at least one of them isn’t entirely sure what exactly they’ve found. In a brief seventeen minutes, these two get much more than they bargained for with the contraband on their hands, and Piat keeps the joke going until the very end, a clever and endearing bit of fiction.

The most heart-wrenching of the five short films, Saria is a fictionalized retelling of a very real tragedy in 2017 when a fire broke out in a locked room in an orphanage in Guatemala, killing 41 girls between the ages of 14 and 17. Rather than recount the events in a fact-based documentary, filmmaker Bryan Buckley makes the incident all the more meaningful by opting for a narrative retelling with one of the orphanage’s residents at the center of the story. Saria (Estefanía Tellez) befriends her fellow residents, and soon participates in a protest and escape plot to break free from the oppressive guards and make the arduous trek to the U.S. The plan doesn’t go as intended, however, and when the tragedy does unfold, it’s heartbreaking to watch given how well we’ve come to known the young women in that room.