Children in peril. The subject appears to be all the rage right now, if we judge by this year’s Oscar-nominated live-action short films, which are screening alongside their animated and documentary counterparts before the Feb. 24 awards ceremony. Four of the titles in question feature a child in some kind of horrific danger — whether it involves kidnapping, murder, accidental death or racial violence.
Emotional manipulation is nothing new to cinema, but it can be particularly repellent if a film’s story feels pointless. And sadly, some of this year’s live-action nominees — which range from a drama about the real-life 1993 murder of the Liverpool toddler James Bulger (“Detainment”) to a stylized thriller about two boys stuck in quicksand (“Fauve”) — may seem cheap in that regard, with ghastly images and scenarios that appear designed to make us feel like we’ve seen something important and meaningful, without delivering on either import or meaning.
By contrast, the one live-action short that doesn’t cavalierly put children in jeopardy, Marianne Farley’s “Marguerite,” a drama about an older woman who learns that her caretaker is a lesbian and has a surge of memories about thwarted love, feels like a reprieve.
The animated shorts offer an even stronger corrective. These pictures can have a formal advantage over their live-action counterparts: Animated characters’ ability to move quickly and express clearer emotions allows filmmakers to pack more elaborate stories into shorter running times. Several of these efforts are able to focus on children’s emotional lives without turning them into opportunistic plot devices.
To wit: Andrew Chesworth and Bobby Pontillas’s “One Small Step” portrays a young woman’s dreams of going to space and tells a complex, tender story in seven quick minutes. Trevor Jimenez’s surreal “Weekends” follows a young boy as he moves between his father’s busy, big-city apartment to his mom’s modest rural home. Then there’s Domee Shi’s Pixar short “Bao,” (which also screened theatrically before “Incredibles 2” last summer) about a woman whose charming vision of raising a steamed dumpling as if it were her child turns out to be a moving metaphor for an emotional impasse with her real son.
Documentary shorts, meanwhile, also provide their share of sad tales, but here, engaging filmmaking can temper the despair — as in Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s intimate “End Game,” which looks at doctors and patients at two end-of-life facilities in San Francisco, and Skye Fitzgerald’s immersive “Lifeboat,” which follows volunteers trying to save refugees attempting to cross the Mediterranean in small, fragile vessels.
But perhaps the most disturbing film in this category is the shortest. Marshall Curry’s seven-minute-long “A Night at the Garden” presents moments from a 1939 Nazi rally in Madison Square Garden in which 20,000 people came together to hear speeches extolling Hitler and warning of a Jewish menace. In the current climate of intolerance, this footage is especially chilling.