What You Need to Know About the 2019 Live-Action Oscar Shorts


So many people disregard the craft and artistry that goes into making concise cinematic narratives. Good short films can be just as satisfying and devastating as a much longer work.

This week at Flixist, we’ll be looking at all of the Oscar-nominated shorts in the live-action, animated, and documentary categories. First up are the Best Live-Action Shorts, which surprisingly feature a lot of children in peril. Jesse Lab will look at the Best Animated Shorts on Wednesday, and I’ll be back on Friday to look at the Best Documentary Shorts.

You’ll be able to catch all 15 of these Academy Award-nominated films in select theaters starting February 8th. A list of locations and dates for these short film programs can be found at shorts.tv/theoscarshorts.

So without further ado, here’s what you need to know about the 2019 Best Live-Action Shorts.


Director: Vincent Lambe
Starring: Ely Solan, Leon Hughes, Will O’Connell, David Ryan, Tara Breathnach
Country: Ireland
Length: 30 minutes

What It’s About

Detainment is based on the shocking 1993 murder of James Bulger, a two-year-old Liverpool infant who was kidnapped, tortured, and killed by 10-year-old boys Robert Thompson and Jon Venables. The film dramatizes the police interviews of Thompson and Venables based on the actual transcripts.

It should be noted that Detainment has sparked controversy since being shortlisted and subsequently nominated for an Oscar. Denise Fergus, the mother of James Bulger, has requested that the movie be withdrawn from Oscar contention. According to the BBC, The makers of Detainment never consulted Bulger’s parents prior to making the film, and having to recall the tragedy again has caused Fergus great anguish. Albert Kirby, a detective who worked on the Bulger case, also expressed qualms about the occasionally aggressive portrayal of the police when interviewing the two 10-year-old suspects.

How Is It?

Before discussing the controversy, let me state upfront that Detainment is a phenomenally made short film. It’s distressing, it’s moving, and it’s difficult to watch knowing that it’s based on actual events. Ultimately, it’s propelled by the performances and how they’re presented. Ely Solan, the child actor who plays Jon, is particularly good at channeling the panic, recrimination, and fear of a young person getting caught up in their lies. Leon Hughes, who plays Robert, is also solid, though his performance is less about the histrionics of guilt and instead modulates between different degrees of psychopathic deflection.

I don’t think Detainment sympathizes with the two murderers so much as it humanizes them. There’s a major difference. Humanization doesn’t condone what happened or absolve these murderers from guilt. The adults in the film are appalled at the actions of these boys, and confused why they would be so inhumane to someone so vulnerable. If anything, the movie seems to have the same point of view as the adults, particularly the parents of the two boys. There is shock, numbness, sadness, a lot of pain without release. Detainment might be implicitly asking “How could these boys do this?” as well as “What if my child did this?” Perhaps the only answer, and the most chilling one, is that children have a terrifying capacity for cruelty, and that monstrousness isn’t exclusive to monsters. 

And yet it feels like Lambe could have reached out and just let the Bulger family know he was making something about their tragedy. Then again, how would he have known that the film would be up for an Academy Award? I’ll be thinking about Detainment for a while, partly for its craft and its performances, and also because of the larger discussion about moral and ethical obligations of artists as they examine the terrible raw material of the real world.


Director: Jérémy Comte
Starring: Félix Grenier, Alexandre Perreault, Louise Bombardier
Country: Canada
Length: 16 minutes

What It’s About

Two children play a game of oneupmanship in an abandoned surface mine. At a certain point, the game goes wrong.

How Is It?

From the outset of Fauve, it felt like something bad was bound to happen. We open with two children playing in an abandoned train car. The tracks have been so long out of use that wild grass and flowers grow up around the crossties. Maybe the dread came because I watched Fauve immediately after Detainment. Boys will be boys, and boys can be awful. They are helpless and alone, and they’re continually pushing each other’s boundaries, which adds to the sense of dread.

Olivier Gossot’s excellent cinematography propels the sparse narrative, particularly with the haunting imagery of the second half and its exceptional closing images. As a compact narrative, Fauve is quite effective.


Director: Marianne Farley
Starring: Béatrice Picard, Sandrine Bisson
Country: Canada
Length: 19 minutes

What It’s About

A elderly woman grows close to her home-care nurse, and comes to a realization about her own attraction to women in the process.

How Is It?

There’s such tenderness in Marguerite, and warmth as well. It was quite striking to see a short film about an old woman and an adult woman immediately after two other shorts about young boys. It’s also the only LGBTQ movie in this group of five films, though it deals with its queerness with restraint and repression, much like the title character has done so her entire life. The movie offers Marguerite a quiet chance to reflect on the regret of hiding her sexuality, and never feeling able to express it. It was different back then, she explains sadly, wistfully.

The decor of Maguerite’s home feels so quaintly old-fashioned. The wallpaper is a floral paisley pattern in shades of orange and green that must have been a la mode in the late 1970s. There’s wood paneling by the entrance, and spoons on display in the modest dining room. They’re fine production design details, but also an outward manifestation of her repression. Marguerite was unable express her love because of the times, and as she got older, she remained locked in those old modes of thinking without sensing an ability to change.

For its sheer difference in tone and demeanor from the other four films, the kindness, gentleness, and soft sadness of Marguerite sticks out in a good way.

Mother (Madre)

Director: Rodrigo Sorogoyen
Starring: Álvaro Balas, Blanca Apilánez, Marta Nieto, Miriam Correa
Country: Spain
Length: 18 minutes

What It’s About

A mother receives a distressing call from her child, which leads to a parent’s worst nightmare.

How Is It?

Presented in just three or four shots, the longest of which lasts around 13 minutes, Mother is an interesting exercise with the long-take aesthetic. All the action essentially takes place in the viewer’s heads, as a mother gets a phone call from her son, who is all alone in an unfamiliar place miles away. Both mother and son become increasing panicked as the horror and uncertainty unfolds in real time.

It’s an intense, well-acted short, and I was intrigued by the choreography between the camera and the two performers in an apartment. Yet I feel like Mother is more of a scene than an entire narrative. As the short wound down, I felt a little disappointed that there wasn’t more to the story. It’s necessarily unresolved, but it didn’t feel whole.


Director: Guy Nattiv
Starring: Johnse Allende Jr., Zeus Campbell, Lonnie Chavis, Jared Day
Country: USA
Length: 20 minutes

What It’s About

A white supremacist assaults an innocent black man as both their children look on, leading to an unexpected turn.

How Is It?

I watched Mother and Skin back to back, and they felt oddly similar in my mind. Both reminded me of flash fiction with a rough landing. Whereas Mother feels like a scene rather than a full story, Skin reminded me of flash fiction that’s built around a clunky twist or an unexpected event later in the plot. We spend a lot of time around this terrible group of racists/neo-Nazis, and then there’s a sense of lower-tier Twilight Zone-equse comeuppance by the end. I get why the plot goes where it does from a narrative perspective, but it feels farfetched given that the initial three-quarters of the movie is so grounded. I was much more interested in exploring racism as a learned behavior, and what the lessons would be for the young boy in the film.

I noticed that Guy Nattiv has worked on a feature-length film called Skin, and while it’s also about a white supremacist, its plot is much different from this short of the same name.

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.