Academy Award shorts focus on parents, children and life’s fragility

In Disney-Pixar's "Bao," a lonely middle-aged woman makes a dumpling that springs to life.


By CYNTHIA DICKISON | Star Tribune (Minneapolis) | Published: February 8, 2019

This year’s Oscar-nominated animated and live-action shorts lean heavily on familial bonds and the shadow of death.


An aged woman, lost in dementia, sits in an easy chair in the "Late Afternoon" (3.5 stars), tended by a loving caregiver. She plumbs the depths of her memory in the bottom of a cup of tea, in an old book, in a sepia photograph; images of her childhood, womanhood and motherhood swirl about. The visions stir her at last to lucidity, however fleeting. It’s a tender commentary on the humanity of the elderly, enhanced by simple line illustration, muted hues and soft Irish brogues.

In the gently humorous "Bao" (3.5 stars), a lonely middle-aged woman makes a dumpling that springs to life. Smitten, she raises the little guy as her child -- feeding him, teaching him, enrolling him in soccer. But of course, her dumpling (and aren’t all babies dumplings?) grows up. Faced with the prospect of her "son" leaving her for a wife, she takes drastic measures, giving new meaning to "I could just eat you up!" As her real son arrives home, bearing apologies, the metaphor is resolved. This sweet fable, tactile and Pixar-vibrant, will warm your heart (and stomach).

Love comes in the form of footwear in "One Small Step" (3 stars), as a single father/cobbler creates tiny astronaut boots for his young space-obsessed daughter. She graduates to flip-flops and running shoes, both of which need his mending touch. But none of this can help her get into astronaut school, and he watches helplessly as she grapples with rejection. It’s only after heartbreak that she realizes that by giving her shoes, he also gave her wings.

A boy is shuttled between his divorced parents in "Weekends" (3 stars), finding a true home with neither his mother (distracted housekeeping, bad boyfriends) nor his father (microwave dinners, inappropriate TV). His unsettled existence is manifested in discombobulated dreams that combine his two worlds in nightmare fashion. He’s a resilient lad, however, and if the uplift at the end isn’t exactly earned, it’s welcome.

"Animal Behaviour" (1.5 stars) suggests every therapy group ever depicted on film, but with critters: a pig with an eating disorder, a cat suffering from a cleanliness compulsion, a praying mantis whose sexual cannibalism ruins all her relationships. Their leader is a dog whose soothing psychobabble masks his own eager-to-please, tail-wagging neuroses. The cliches come fast and, um, furry-ous -- especially when an ape with anger management issues upsets the menagerie -- and the harsh animation style is the opposite of cuddly.


The elderly "Marguerite" (3.5 stars) is clear-minded, but feeble-bodied. Her kind, young health aide provides company and comfort, washing her hair and rubbing her feet. The casual revelation that the aide is lesbian causes a momentary flicker in Marguerite’s eyes, but it is not one of disapproval. For she, too, once loved a woman, in a much less forgiving time. The painful realization of what might have been is written in her wrinkles, a pain that the balm of human touch can only partly erase.

Two mischievous boys head out on an adventure one sunny summer day, exploring old rail cars and abandoned buildings, tricking and taunting each other in a spirited game of one-upmanship. Only one boy comes back. The final, haunting scene of "Fauve" (3 stars) keeps the camera on his traumatized face, a stark reflection of an unimaginable future.

A phone call between a divorced mother and her 6-year-old son takes up most of the 16-minute runtime of "Madre" (3 stars). The boy went on a beach vacation with his father, but the father has disappeared, leaving him with only a dying cellphone. As his mother becomes increasingly frantic (Where is the beach? Where is the father? The boy doesn’t know), the tension ratchets up. The ambiguous ending is either a cop-out, or great art.

The heavy-handed "Skin" (2 stars) is nevertheless heart-pounding as it expounds on race and class. A tightly wound skinhead brutally assaults a black man for a perceived slight, in the presence of his young son. The shocking act of retribution by the victim’s allies, and the inevitable tragic end at the hands of the boy, are almost cartoonish in their symbolism -- as blatant as the swastika tattoos splashed across the skinhead’s chest.

The horrifying true crime at the center of "Detainment" (1.5 stars) -- the kidnapping and murder of a toddler by two 10-year-old boys in 1993 Britain -- lends this police procedural, based on actual transcripts, a harrowing quality. Scenes of detectives interrogating, browbeating, wearing down the boys are hard to watch, stirring an uncomfortable sympathy in the viewer. The filmmakers’ purported aim was to divine some understanding of the young killers and their motive, even at a cost of acute distress to the toddler’s family, but this understanding never comes.

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