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'Oscar Nominated Shorts 2021: Live Action': Film Review

Courtesy of Oscar Shorts TV

This year's live-action short Oscar nominees look at cops, control and confinement.

Imprisonment, in many senses of the word, is at the center of each of the five nominees for this year's live-action short film Oscar, which is not to say they're a homogenous bunch: Though all have political undercurrents and speak to present-tense issues, their moods and styles vary enough that their one big (mostly) common theme — cops, and how they wield power — stands out only because we've already been thinking about it every day for what feels like forever. Each finds a distinctive and memorable way to dramatize its concerns, and there's not a self-righteous sermon in the lot.

The sole film without a cop in its cast revolves around a kind of confinement many of us would find even more horrifying than prison: One of its two leads is deaf and blind, standing alone on a street corner in Lower Manhattan near 2 a.m., holding a "please help" sign. Doug Roland's Feeling Through watches as a between-homes young man, trying to find a friend he can crash with before everyone's asleep, gets sidetracked by this stranger he can hardly communicate with. The short was produced with the Helen Keller National Center, but feels less like an advocacy movie than an effective, minimalist character study about a kid whose own pressing needs have been suddenly thrown into a new perspective.

Another young Black New Yorker has a lot more going for him in Two Distant Strangers: waking up in the bed of a woman he can see himself falling for, heading home to an enviable apartment and the dog who loves him. But the morning doesn't go as planned. Travon Free and Martin Desmond Roe's sometimes obvious but always heartfelt film uses a familiar genre trope and Bruce Hornsby's social-justice ballad "The Way It Is" to convey the seemingly inevitable, ceaseless threat police present to Black Americans. As the much-persecuted man in question, rapper Joey Badass is spirited in a way that de-emphasizes some of the plot's more depressing aspects, preferring to search for what it takes to keep going, day after day, in a country so unwilling to fix itself.

Two films from Palestine and Israel deal with related issues of rightful ownership, privilege, and policing, though the latter takes a more allegorical approach than the heartbreakingly direct former. The Palestinian film, Farah Nabulsi's The Present, shows how humiliating even the most basic chores can be for Arabs subject to constant suspicion. A father who wants to spend his day off running errands with his daughter must go through a military checkpoint on his way into and out of town. For no reason beyond the soldiers' love for the rituals of subjugation, the man is put in a cage while the girl's anxiety grows. Threatening to go to darker places than it actually winds up, the short does just enough to make systemic ills painfully personal.

Tomer Shushan's White Eye addresses the Israel/Palestine conflict only via metaphor, when a man finds a bike that was stolen from him a month ago, now locked up at another man's workplace. The allegory gets tangled when we learn that the alleged thief is an Eritrean immigrant, at risk of deportation, who says he bought the bike in good faith. In a long, uninterrupted take, Shushan's camera follows attempts to resolve this dispute by seeking out third parties who never prove to be entirely disinterested.

Likely to attract the most attention by virtue of its cast, Elvira Lind's The Letter Room sees Oscar Isaac playing a prison guard struggling with some new responsibilities. Much more sympathetic to those in uniform than other shorts here, Room paints Isaac's character as a do-gooder trying to improve an indifferent (at best) environment in what small ways he can. Altruism and loneliness prove a dangerous mixture, though, when he's assigned to read prisoners' incoming and outgoing mail. The longest film on the program, it relishes Isaac's predictably subtle performance while finessing the line between pathos and humor.


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