Here are reviews of all 5 nominees for Best Documentary Short.
There’s a live action short nominee about a crisis hotline, and there’s a feature nominee, American Sniper, that pays lip service to the concerns of veterans, and Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1 makes both those films look like bullshit. This is a no-nonsense documentary. It’s about the only veterans call center in America. It’s a place where hard working people do their best to help desperate vets at their most vulnerable. The film doesn’t do anything other than present one side of a few of the phone calls. Some of the calls are from soldiers currently stationed, while others are still dealing with PTSD from wars long past. In its simplicity there is powerful drama and emotion. It’s also very smart about which calls to showcase. There’s a balance to strike here between exploitation and entertainment for maximum impact and it’s handled wonderfully. It’s easily my favorite of the nominees.
Our Curse is almost impossible for me to declare good or bad for a few reasons. It’s about a young couple, who are also the filmmakers, coping with raising their extremely sick newborn. The baby has a respiratory disease that requires a tracheotomy and almost constant use of a ventilator. One issue is that this film is self-made. It’s their way of coping and that’s fine, and ethically I think it ultimately passes. However, I couldn’t help but think about whether or not it passes the entire time I was watching it. Their baby always came first, but you know they’re also thinking about coverage somewhere in the back of their mind. Also, I have a pretty wide threshold for most things but this film broke me. I found the scenes of their baby gasping for air, crying with no voice simply unbearable. It’s just something I don’t want or need to see. So it’s harrowing and put together well, and it does what it’s trying to do, but the distractions and the wincing were too much for me.
The Reaper is a high art look at a man who works at a Mexican slaughterhouse. Another thing I don’t want or need to see. It’s mostly shots of the medieval looking building during business hours while the man, nicknamed Reaper, shares various and ponderous thoughts in voiceover. Although the man spends many hours every day close to and dispensing death, his thoughts on the matter aren’t that interesting. The juxtaposition of the living animals with the brutal barbaric surroundings is a nicely realized contrast, but it’s all the film has. It’s not even explicitly anti-beef. I get what it wants to say and why it’s using this guy as a way to say it. But really, my takeaway was simply that this guy has a rough shitty life and he mostly has his shitty job to thank for it.
The miserable parade continues with Joanna. This is about a mom dying of cancer and the special time she spends with her young son before she dies. It’s sad. How could it not be? But as a film, it’s just sub-Malick shots of a mother and son having a picnic or some such thing or another. And it goes on forever. If I’m going to be called heartless for not liking something, I’m okay with it being this film. It’s dull and unappealing. I’m all for documentaries that utilize more diverse styles beyond talking heads, but this impressionistic snapshot is better kept within the family photo album. Cancer sucks. I get it. But the way this film is made does nothing to make me sympathize, which should be easy because it’s fucking cancer.
White Earth is even more daily drudgery but a lot more interesting. It’s about a very small town in North Dakota and a few of the recent transplants dealing with the local oil boom. I can see how this subject was expanded to feature length in The Overnighters, which shares the same backdrop. It’s also in the same vein as last year’s Rich Hill, which followed 3 impoverished teens, but with barren landscapes and oil added in. It’s an honest look at working class people mostly through the eyes of their children. In just a few quick vignettes a full story of hard work and a town’s future is elegantly told and contemplated. It’s a very solid and simple short film that doesn’t overstay its welcome.