As is frequently the case in award season's home stretch, tension is mounting as controversies rage. As is less frequently the case, the hubbub is being generated by the Oscar shorts race and not the jockeying among features. Think Green Book touched a nerve? Try "Detainment."
In advance of the Academy Awards telecast on February 24, the five competing live-action short films are screening theatrically alongside animated and documentary nominees. Apropos for a grim, strange time, most are decidedly grim and strange. They thumb their nose at the late, great Gene Siskel's dictum against imperiling minor characters to manipulate viewer emotion. They don't merely give us imperiled children, they give us children imperiling children.
Director Marianne Farley is, in fact, the sole contender who can say no minor characters were harmed in the making of her film. That's because the 19-minute "Marguerite" doesn't have any. It's the tender, artfully rendered portrait of the bond between an elderly Montréal woman, Marguerite (Béatrice Picard), and her caregiver, Rachel (Sandrine Bisson). On learning that the person calling Rachel is her girlfriend, Marguerite experiences a rush of memories that bring back feelings she had but never acted on. Farley takes things in a deeply human, delicately handled direction when Marguerite inquires, "What's it like to make love to a woman?"
"Fauve" is a second Canadian work, though unlike Farley's in every other conceivable respect. Jeremy Comte's 17-minute movie follows two friends as they play an improvised game of one-upmanship. The boys score points by psyching out or out-performing each other in a series of challenges. One prevails when events take a tragic turn in an off-limits quarry. It's a hauntingly crafted piece in which victory proves anything but sweet.
Kid problems just keep coming in Rodrigo Sorogoyen's 19-minute nightmare "Mother." The Spanish filmmaker builds a world of hurt from the simplest of premises: a mother getting a call from her 7-year-old son. Unfortunately, he's in France with his father, and the man has vanished. The child's lost, his battery is about to die and, oh, a stranger is approaching. In the mood for a taut exercise in minimalist terror? Dial M for "Madre."
"Skin" is like those episodes of "The Twilight Zone" where something weird happens to someone and teaches them a life lesson. Only, in this case, that someone is a neo-Nazi and, yup, a kid gets caught in the crosshairs. Guy Nattiv directs.
When was the last time a 30-minute movie got a nation so worked up it petitioned the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to withdraw the nomination? That's what's happening with Vincent Lambe's "Detainment." It revisits the James Bulger case, the horrific 1993 head-scratcher that resulted in the conviction of two 10-year-old boys for the torture and murder of a 2-year-old. Brits are outraged by the film. Not that any of the nearly 300,000 who've signed the petition have actually had the opportunity to see it, given the distributor's release schedule. They're apoplectic in principle.
Also, the killers — Jon Venables and Robert Thompson — were released and given new identities after just eight years. So there's a bit of a mob mentality in play. The filmmaker believes the film is long overdue. "There has never been a proper debate about why the killing happened, despite its prominence," he's explained. There is now.
In a slate of assured, thought-provoking works, "Detainment" stands apart as exceptionally powerful and appropriately unsettling. Based on transcripts of interviews with the boys conducted by police, Lambe's horrifying half hour is never less than arresting.