In a recent interview with Food & Wine, Brandon Chrostowski, who lost his bid last year to become mayor of Cleveland, is described as an ex-con. “I believe I am on borrowed time,” Chrostowski told writer Jillian Kramer. And yet, per Kramer’s own words: “The details are fuzzy, but he got lucky; a judge let him go instead of serving him a 10-year sentence. He’s made it count.” It’s at this point, then, that you may wonder if Chrostowski is actually an ex-con. The details are about as fuzzy throughout Thomas Lennon’s Knife Skills, which documents Chrostowski’s efforts to open a French restaurant in Cleveland, Edwin’s, entirely employed by men and women who had recently been released from prison. “The short of it is, a restaurant saved my life,” the chef tells his prospective employees, though you will never learn exactly why.
One doesn’t doubt Chrostowski’s commitment to, in his words, bringing hope to the lives of ex-cons, regardless of what paths they’ve been down. “I don’t care about the past,” he says. Those words are instructive, and seem as if they should have been an impetus for Lennon to truly excavate the desperation of Chrostowski’s past and, in turn, bring a sense of complicated context to the man’s present-day efforts to edify other people’s lives. But Chrostowski’s pain remains an abstraction. He calls himself “trash,” and Lennon, rather than challenging that self-assessment and trace it to whatever ambition steered Chrostowski away from a life of potential non-stop despair, simply sentimentalizes the man’s agony. The climax of the film? Chrostowski, while crying and holding onto a chain link fence, describing how he named his newborn Leonard after “the patron saint of prisoners.”
Indeed, even when Lennon trains his camera on those who Chrostowski is helping through his makeshift culinary school, Knife Skills remains resolutely about Chrostowski’s do-gooderism. On paper, the film sounds like an attractive proposition to the AMPAS voter, especially as it was made by someone who’s already an Oscar winner (Lennon won in 2007 in this category for The Blood of Yingzhou District). But given the nature of the controversy surrounding Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, you may wonder if the average Oscar voter is on such high alert at the moment that they’ll find the miscalculation of this redux of The Blind Side to be especially transparent.
It doesn’t help that Knife Skills is up against a number of films that aren’t wary of plumbing their subjects’ pain. Kate Davis’s Traffic Stop, for one, plays like a rebuke to Three Billboards and all that the Martin McDonagh film conspicuously leaves off screen. A black woman’s pain is disturbingly front and center throughout this account of what happened to Breaion King, a schoolteacher from Austin, Texas, in 2015 when she was stopped for a minor traffic violation by police officer Bryan Richter. But to echo a sentiment expressed by Eric Henderson yesterday, the short goes in the completely opposite direction of Three Billboards, so agonizingly, necessarily confronting us with the spectacle of a white main’s seething, irrational rage toward a black body, that it leaves no room for an edifying sense of hope.
Elsewhere, Edith + Eddie, an account of how America’s oldest interracial newlyweds were separated in the wake of a family feud, does not lack for pathos. Edith Hill and Eddie Harrison’s love for one another is as unmistakable as the callousness with which police and Jessica Niesen, a court-appointed guardian, swoop in to separate the couple. As directors Laura Checkoway and Thomas Lee Wrights were shut out of the room where Niesen takes custody of Edith, only the audio is heard from the moment, and the unintended effect is that the film—and in spite of one of our Oscar gurus calling Niesen “the villain of the year”—appears to play too nice. In short, it doesn’t have the chokehold focus on its subject—a blind spot in the legal system that leads to a failure of empathy—that it could have had.
The category’s best short, Heroin(e), is nowhere near as cloying as its title would appear to imply. Elaine McMillion Sheldon and Kerrin Sheldon’s film evinces a Wiseman-esque flair for the minutiae of institutions, though it’s aspirational in ways that Wiseman’s films are not. That’s not a dig, as the film’s sense of an achievably better life for the people of Huntington, West Virginia does not lean on empty sentiment. At the center of Heroin(e) are three women—a fire chief, a drug court judge, and the head of an outreach ministry—who are humane straight-talkers devoted to erasing Huntington’s reputation as the overdose capital of the world. But this is the short that most transcends the politics of our current moment, and while it profoundly aligns itself with those who see victims of drug overdoes as actual victims, we don’t expect a plurality of Oscar voters to be on the same page.
That leaves Frank Stiefel’s Heaven Is a Traffic Jam on the 405, a documentary portrait of 56-year-old artist Mindy Alper and her difficult relationship to her parents—so difficult that one doesn’t doubt by the end of the film that Alper’s mental illness can be largely attributed to her father’s physical and psychological abuse and her mother’s subsequent emotional and physical distance from her. In ways that are at best dubious and at worst risible, Stiefel preciously animates and scores many of Alper’s recollections, and mostly in a style that doesn’t at all sync up with the visceral sense of despair that Alper’s artwork exudes. But you can’t say that the film doesn’t have a relentless focus on its subject, and you certainly can’t deny that the Oscars have rarely passed up the opportunity to reward documentaries that almost appear to congratulate themselves for bringing an unknown artist and his or her tortured art to the public’s attention.
Will Win: Heaven Is a Traffic Jam on the 405
Could Win: Edith + Eddie
Should Win: Heroin(e)