By William J. Hammon, founder ActuallyPaid.com
In just under a week, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will officially announce its nominations for the 95th Oscars. In 10 of the 23 categories, the competition was narrowed in late December to shortlists of 10-15 entries after the respective branches completed preliminary voting and consideration for dozens – if not hundreds – of submitted films. The final five nominees in those categories will come from these shortlists.
In anticipation, it’s worth taking a few moments to look over a couple of hopefuls who might hear their names called on Tuesday morning. Of the 15 films vying for Live Action Short (of 200 eligible candidates), there are two that share a similar theme – the basic human need for companionship – but have completely different approaches and stories.
The Right Words
Directed by Adrian Moyse Dullin, The Right Words (Haut les Coeurs, or High Hearts in French) was nominated for the short film Palme d’Or at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival. A brief slice of teenage life and peer pressure in the digital age, the film largely succeeds because of how expertly the characters are explored in such a short space of time.
Taking place over a mere 15 minutes, the story revolves around Mahdi (played by Yasser Osmani), who has a crush on his classmate, Jada (Sanya Salhi), going so far as to write a poem about her in his journal. That journal has been confiscated by his sister Kenza (Aya Halal), with its content posted on Snapchat. Embarrassed, Mahdi rushes onto the local commuter bus where everyone’s riding to the mall to try to put out any fires before they get out of control, as Jada doesn’t even know he exists. Instead of returning his belongings, Kenza and her friend Aïssatou (Ramatoulaye N’Dongo) goad Mahdi into confessing his feelings to her in person.
There’s some amazing character work in this vignette, with Mahdi, Kenza, and Aïssatou running an emotional gamut as the clock ticks on Mahdi’s window of opportunity. The young boy is alternately scared, nervous, confident, subtle, and overzealous as he tries to formulate his plot in the very limited time he has available. Meanwhile, Aïssatou quickly goes from antagonistic to empathetic, initially fully into Kenza’s prank on her little brother before genuinely encouraging him. As for Kenza, while she’s confrontational throughout, it is made clear that while she teases Mahdi and annoys him for kicks, she does want to give him a legit chance at his first love. It’s down to both the quality of the performances and the deft nuance of the script that this all comes across as something other than mean-spirited bullying.
It all leads to a satisfying climax when Mahdi finally gets off the bus. The main setting provides a claustrophobic motif for the stress that he feels in the moment, with the exit becoming his cathartic release both literally and metaphorically. In a mere 15 minutes, Dullin and his very able young cast are able to showcase one of the most pivotal moments in an adolescent’s life, filtered through the modern lens of social media, relating a truly universal experience to the audience.
Over the last two years, we’ve had more than our fair share of cinematic art devoted to the COVID pandemic, with stories focusing on the isolation and quarantining we all had to endure. Director Nils Keller takes the concept to an unexpected new level with Almost Home, conveying the desperate need for social interaction in surprisingly intimate ways given its grand scale.
Beginning with an idyllic scene between our lead, Jakob (Jeremias Meyer) and his paramour, Lisa (Malaya Stern Takeda), we cut to Jakob taking an online Japanese course to impress her, and notice that he’s floating in space. It turns out Jakob has a genetic defect that has left him partially immobile for his entire young life, but in something of a therapeutic breakthrough, he’s been accompanying his mother Nico (Susanne Wolff, giving off strong Diane Kruger vibes in the best way possible) on transport runs between Earth and Mars (where humans have established a colony), using the zero-gravity environment to rehabilitate his musculature so that he can walk normally when he returns home.
However, as Jakob an Nico are on their final approach, docking with a space station that will transport them down to the surface, they learn from Jakob’s father Tom (Stephan Kampwirth) that a flu contagion has broken out on Earth, a new strain that is difficult to predict, spreads almost randomly, and is highly fatal, especially to those like Jakob who have compromised immune systems. Sound familiar? Now 17 years old, Jakob has already spent years away from his friends and the rest of his family, and now, mere hours from home, he faces the prospect of being deprived of the one thing he’s been suffering for. The dilemma then becomes whether he will remain alone in space with Nico as his only companion, or will he go home to his father (and eventually Lisa), risking an almost certainly fatal infection for the chance at living the life he was promised.
Meyer, Wolff, and Kampwirth all give solid performances, but the real stars here are the production design and visual effects. Keller has created a truly realistic spaceship set for the film, with each button and screen having a practical function to sell the illusion. Further, the special effects (particularly the holographic interactions between Jakob and Tom as they communicate) are some of the best I’ve ever seen in a short film, reminding me fondly of 2013’s winner in the category, Helium, which imagined a steampunk world of floating islands and balloons. If you’ll forgive the pun, this is a truly stellar visual profile, and serves as an excellent representation of the solitude Jakob feels. It’s one thing to be locked up in your room. It’s quite another to be able to see two different planets and the vastness of space, knowing you can’t touch any of it. It’s sneakily powerful.