A program of movie shorts is like a bowl of party mix — work with me here; it’s a metaphor and I intend to torture it — and a lot of the enjoyment lies in not knowing what you’re going to pop in your mouth next. That’s also the downside: For every crunchy macadamia nut, there’s a stale piece of Rice Chex or a wasabi pea that’s gone off.
“2012 Sundance Shorts,” a touring collection that arrives at the Coolidge today, has a few too many questionable wasabi peas. The 10 films, all of which played the Sundance Film Festival last January, range in length from 3 to 21 minutes, and, unusually, the two longest shorts — the Brazil nuts, if you will — are the freshest. They’re also the two that most pointedly engage the real world.
The 17-minute “Fishing Without Nets,” directed by Cutter Hodierne, appears at first to be a documentary about a band of Somali pirates, crisply shot from an embedded position within the group. It slowly becomes clear, though, that this is a fictional story of a local fisherman (Abdi Muktar) conscripted by the pirates and forced to make a moral choice. “Fishing” depicts an economic Third World wasteland without letting its characters off the hook; Hodierne is reportedly trying to turn the short into a feature, and it’ll be fascinating to see if he can maintain his terse balancing act in the longer format.
“The Return,” from the Kosovo filmmaker Blerta Zegiri, is a heart-wrenching 21 minutes about a man (Lulzim Bucolli) who reunites with his wife (Adriana Matoshi) and young son after years as a prisoner of war. The film explores with delicate clarity the tenderness and awkwardness between the couple, leading up to a revelation by the wife that forces the husband to examine how much hate and how much love are left in his heart.
Those are the winners (literally: both films won jury prizes at Sundance). The shorter shorts are less impactful if occasionally diverting. “The Arm,” directed by Brie Larsen, Sarah Ramos, and Jessie Ennis, is a tart tale of modern social-media horror about a shy teenager (Miles Heizer) who tries to maintain a texting romance with a new girlfriend, with dire results. “First Birthday,” from Andrew Ahn, is a brief but quietly moving story about a gay Korean-American man (Joshua Kwak) coming to terms with his estrangement from his family.
Two of the shorts address robots, kind of. “The Robots of Brixton,” by Kibwe Tavares, mixes excellent home-cooked computer animation and social outrage for a muddled metaphor about racial oppression in Britain. The four-minute “Meaning of Robots” is a profile of Mike Sullivan, a 65-year-old shut-in obsessed with making a stop-motion porn film starring robot miniatures. Both are like finding a wing nut in the bowl.
“Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared,” an aggressively dada variation on “Pee-wee’s Playhouse”-style kiddie entertainment, is the weirdest of the shorts, and very engagingly so: It’s the party-mix equivalent of brown acid. Then there’s Nash Edgerton’s “Bear,” a disappointing follow-up to the filmmaker’s 2007 festival-viral video hit “Spider.” Once again the well-meaning but way-too-enthusiastic Jack (Edgerton) comes up with a plan to surprise his girlfriend (Mirrah Foulkes this time), and once again it goes spectacularly awry. But where the first film — you can find it online, and you should — developed the idea in believably horrible-funny ways, “Bear” tips quickly into absurdity. It’s the one tidbit in this variable mix that requires too much chewing to swallow.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.