Looking back on the last decade of winners in this category, you might begin to see a pattern: a poor girl with a cleft lip; the effect of AIDS on orphans in China; a gay woman dying of cancer trying to secure benefits for her lover; women’s faces deformed by acid attacks. They share several common themes in subject matter, prompting Slant’s own Ed Gonzalez to posit that voters have a distinct bias for “disease, deformity, and children.” This suggests to us that this year’s nominee with the most overlap of these variables is the most likely winner.
Scoring low on the DDC scale is Inocente, which tells the story of a young Chicana artist whose colorful paintings help her rise above her troubled upbringing. Guided by Inocente’s emotional recounting of growing up and living in shelters, the film pieces together a broader narrative of homelessness in America that proves a syrupy mix with the fanciful painting interludes. But Inocente, from War/Dance filmmakers Sean Fine and Andrea Nix, can probably be ruled out on its premise alone. If the 2010 film Poster Girl, about a female veteran making art, couldn’t win in this category (and we thought it would), then Inocente seems less likely to prevail.
Also out is Jon Alpert and Matthew O’Neill’s Redemption, a film that delves into the private lives of can collectors in New York City. It’s possibly the short with the most original subject matter, and the most diverse collection of intriguing character vignettes, but its persistent and pronounced references to the dour national economy aren’t enough to overcome the fact that it possesses none of the standard ingredients of a winner. Not even the hamfisted shot of a homeless man walking down Wall Street is likely to sway voters.
A close cousin to Redemption in all manners except subject is Sari Gilman and Jedd Wider’s Kings Point, about old folks coping with love and death in a Florida retirement facility. In both shorts, people are bound by the common struggle simply to get by, but Kings Point is notably looser with its narrative grip, evidenced best by its pausing for as long as 45 seconds to show an old woman laughing at a rerun of The Carol Burnett Show. If we can file death under “disease,” then Kings Point, in spite of its too-on-the-nose message, stands a chance, though it doesn’t hold a candle to Mondays at Racine.
Cynthia Wade and Robin Honan’s short relates the story of two sisters who run a hair salon and who give makeovers to victims of breast cancer. Though easily the most maudlin of the nominees, thanks to an array of tear-inducing devices (such as the dreaded “old photo montage”), Mondays at Racine will nonetheless play well for Academy voters for the intimate perspective it fosters into the lives of cancer sufferers. It also has the added benefit of scenes that seem as if they were tailored for Oscar, such as a “passing of the baton” at the finale that’s sure to strike a chord.
The surest bet in the category, however, is Kief Davidson and Cori Shepherd Stern’s Open Heart, as it ranks highest on the DDC scale, focusing on the lives of several Rwandan children (check) with serious heart disease (check) who travel to a medical center in the Sudan for surgery. And what it lacks in deformities it gains in its third-world setting. The short’s mesh of character interviews and verité style in tracing its subjects’ lives is incredibly polished and focused when compared to the general crudeness of its competitors. But Open Heart also rises above its fellow nominees because it enables the story’s deeper humanity to develop through close (but not overly so) documentation of the subtly expressed pains and joys of the children and their parents. It may hit all the expected markers to earn a victory here, but quieter moments abound that allow it to resonate deeper than its ostentatious “Oscar-bait” premise would suggest.
Will Win: Open Heart
Could Win: Mondays at Racine
Should Win: Open Heart