What awful childhood traumas are gnawing at the members of the Academy’s short films and feature animation branch? The nominees for the best animated short film (see other review) are a pretty cathartic bunch, but they have nothing on the live-action candidates, almost all of which deal with very bad things happening to very young boys. The program screens at the Kendall Square, but your money might be better spent at a therapist, since you’ll be heading there anyway.
“Detainment” has become the most controversial of the quintet in Britain, for obvious reasons: It dramatizes the run-up to and aftermath of the 1993 murder of 2-year-old James Bulger by Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, both 10. The case horrified the nation and the world; the film, directed by Vincent Lambe and consisting mostly of re-created police interrogations and impressionistic flashbacks, is well-made, disturbing, and, in the end, only disturbing. It gazes into the eyes of a senseless crime and comes away with . . . nothing. Should it have been made? Of course. Does it deserve to be celebrated? I’m not so sure.
“Fauve,” from Quebec’s Jeremy Comte, is even more wrenching, a tale of two boys (Felix Grenier and Alexander Perreault) whose afternoon playing around in an abandoned quarry turns deadly. The film puts audiences on a rack of suspense and then hands them a poetic metaphor that feels lightweight and corny next to the bleakness of what has come before.
“Madre,” from Spain’s Rodrigo Sorogoyen, concerns a young mother (Marta Nieto) who gets a phone call from her 6-year-old son, whom her estranged husband appears to have abandoned on a beach in France. The boy has no idea where he is, the phone battery is dying, and a strange man is approaching — does it matter that “Madre” tells most of its agonizing story in one elegant single-take shot from the mother’s side of the conversation? Watched on its own, “Madre” is a well-turned bit of cinematic sadism. On a bill with the other shorts, it starts to resemble extreme cruelty.
These films are meant to stand on their own, obviously, and putting them together in a single program forces unintended connections. Even as a stand-alone, though, Guy Nattiv’s “Skin” feels heavy-handed, an expertly filmed drama of racial violence and revenge that features a lugubrious O. Henry twist at the end. Jackson Robert Scott plays a country boy who adores his old man (Jonathan Tucker), a tattooed white supremacist, loving toward his son and heinously violent to any people of color whose paths he crosses. An African-American gang kidnaps the father for a bizarre comeuppance that ultimately lands with an ironic thud. “Skin” is not to be confused with a feature film of the same title (but with a different plot), directed by the same filmmaker, that also came out in 2018. Although if that’s not begging for confusion, I don’t know what is.
There’s often a silly, lightweight comedy among the annual nominated offerings; no such luck this year. But “Marguerite,” from Canada’s Marianne Farley — the lone woman director in the category — has a sweetness that helps it stand out from the other four films. Beatrice Picard plays the elderly title character, and Sandrine Bisson her visiting nurse. The latter divulges a private matter that prompts the older woman to consider the long span of her life and then confess to a road she didn’t — and couldn’t — take. The final moments of “Marguerite” are so gently touching and true that you may find yourself moved to tears. It’s all right if they’re also tears of relief.
OSCAR NOMINATED SHORT FILMS 2019: LIVE ACTION
At Kendall Square. 109 minutes. Unrated