It’s with only a slight tinge of disappointment that we report that Oscar’s live-action short category does not feature the year’s most awful nominee. This slate’s biggest “crime” may be that it mostly delivers its predictably left-leaning sentiments in straightforward fashion, unlike some of the year’s higher-profile Oscar nominees that couch message within metaphor or direct their intentions through the side door of vintage time periods.
Only Kevin Wilson Jr.’s My Nephew Emmett, in fact, takes place in an entirely different era, though one could forgive voters for assessing this elegiac portrait of Jim Crow-era Mississippi as a cautionary tale, what with a white supremacist-emboldener currently occupying the Oval Office. At its best early on, when conveying the sense of perpetual unease that blacks in the rural south of the 1950s felt, it ultimately undercuts its own sense of disquietingly pastoral dread by pulling virtually the same gear shift that Kathryn Bigelow attempted with Detroit. In other words, it turns a flash point in civil rights history—in this case, the abduction and unspeakably brutal murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till—into a high-concept home-invasion horror movie.
Those who recognize that homegrown racists pop up more frequently and malevolently than Pennywise would have to agree that this subject matter deserves a feature, not a short, and that this entry ultimately comes off as a sketch when the subject of American racism could fuel a franchise that would dwarf anything Marvel has so far devised. But My Nephew Emmett does have one advantage over Katja Benrath and Tobias Rosen’s Watu Wote (All of Us): It competes for the award during a time in which Americans can’t seem to be bothered to contemplate anyone’s problems other than their own.
Not that this category’s requisite humanitarian-crisis candidates have generally performed well here in the past; Ennemis Intérieurs, Day One, Asad, and That Wasn’t Me (or, as we preferred to call it, Did I Do That?) all failed to prevail over far less politically urgent opponents. Watu Wote, a reenactment of an al-Shabaab siege on a Kenyan bus that was thwarted when the Muslim passengers refused to identify the Christians on board, plays pretty close to the standard playbook for efficacious short filmmaking, foregrounding emotional wreckage and downplaying all sociopolitical context.
Somehow, Watu Wote avoids being the most infomercial-adjacent nominee. That honor goes to Chris Overton and Rachel Shenton’s The Silent Child, which was the Oscar candidate that the CBS Evening News shined its camera lights on when this year’s nominations were announced. For what it’s worth, it looks incredibly handsome, and the way the film utilizes its desolate, foggy British countryside accentuates the isolation that the deaf title character feels amid a family that’s apparently just too busy to learn how to sign. The pathos is inherent, especially when a cheery Mary Poppins-Anne Sullivan figure steps into the girl’s life, but the filmmakers curiously gild the lily by turning the girl’s mother into a neglectful ghoul and near-derailing their plot with a “gotcha” soap-operatic twist involving the girl’s paternity.
Against a slate of nominees that are almost obscene in the way they set out to press our present-day pressure points, Reed Van Dyk’s DeKalb Elementary is 99-44/100 pure, raising as many red flags as you can count. The category’s equivalent of a bottle episode, it depicts an armed, mentally unstable white young man holding a black school receptionist and the rest of her locked-down school hostage. Generally, Haneke-in-miniature sketches of domestic angst and terror (Miracle Fish, Just Before Losing Everything, and Everything Will Be Okay, to name the most obvious examples) haven’t moved the needle, but this exceedingly well-acted short’s focused intensity never overshadows its clear endorsement of empathy, which sets it apart from the social-justice hard sells its up against, especially among those thirsty for any kind of hope.
But then again, we have to consider the resilience of the overly clever, self-contained contraption in this category. Derin Seale’s The Eleven O’Clock, an Aussie comedy about a therapy session in which two men claim to be each other’s psychiatrist, is less an embodiment of the kind of soullessness that has won the live-action short Oscar in the past than it is a vaguely smug riff of what anyone who has never undergone therapy thinks about everyone who practices it. (It’s like The Voorman Problem’s God complex transposed into a gently sick joke.) Some of our gurus of gold thought it succeeded by remaining committed to its satirical take, whereas others felt it to be a Monty Python routine played numbingly straight. Either way, this flavor’s hit-to-miss ratio here is awfully good even when it doesn’t occupy a lane all its own.
Will Win: The Eleven O’Clock
Could Win: DeKalb Elementary
Should Win: DeKalb Elementary