In what seems to have become the Academy’s unofficial smallscreen category, five bound-for-TV nonfiction segments are competing for the documentary short Oscar: Four were commissioned/acquired by HBO, while the fifth (“Inocente”) marks an inspirational one-off for MTV. That’s not to say the nominees aren’t worthy of recognition, only that it’s time the Academy rethink the relevance of a category disconnected from the theatrical experience. As in recent years, clunky issue pics have edged out candidates that advance the form. Even separated into two feature-length programs, this least appealing of Shorts Intl.’s three Oscar shorts programs makes for a long sit.
First on the bill, “Kings Point,” suggests that old people need love, too, providing a look at the dreary routine in a Florida retirement community where most of the residents have outlived their spouses and relatives seldom come to visit. By spending time with a handful of lonelyhearts, director Sari Gilman taps into an issue that will only deepen as longevity increases. Yet lively as the individuals included are, the bland doc never quite manages to pin down their personalities, handling the retirees with kid gloves instead of the good-natured humor they seem to invite.
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The best of the bunch, “Mondays at Racine” addresses the painful identity issues female cancer victims feel, focusing on a Long Island nail salon that offers free service for chemotherapy patients. Privileging character over politics, Cynthia Wade’s poignant group portrait emphasizes the intimate side of the disease, illuminating such personal details as how women cope with the loss of their hair and femininity during treatment. By spotlighting a resilient support group, the short allows auds to share in their spirit of embattled optimism — and even their tears when a new client prepares to have her scalp shaved.
Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine’s “Inocente” plays like a standalone reality-TV segment, following a homeless San Diegan’s struggle to assert her artistic identity amid the distractions of a troubled home life. Though formulaic in its approach, the inspirational short chose its subject well, using teenage Inocente’s search for stability to humanize the experience of undocumented youth for whom opportunity seems just out of reach. The pic sets Inocente’s fraying relationship with her mother against the encouragement she receives from a nonprofit program called A Reason to Survive, giving emotional uplift to a potentially depressing topic.
In the second program, “Redemption” turns its attention to the caste of gleaners who get by “canning” in New York City — that is, collecting recyclables from other people’s trash — answering questions that have at some point intrigued every Gothamite. But the film runs twice as long as the subject warrants; like so many docu shorts, this one surely would have made a better magazine article. Instead of shaping a compelling narrative, helmers Jon Alpert and Matthew O’Neill stretch to dignify the daily routines of a handful of underdogs (one of them a decorated former IBM employee) whom most people would cross the street to avoid.
Appealing to auds’ emotions, “Open Heart” follows in the footsteps of past docu short winners “Smile Pinki” and “Saving Face” by examining Western efforts to deliver medical salvation to the suffering Third World. Pics like this give auds the vicarious impression they are personally healing the world, when in fact, in this case it is the work of one man, Italian surgeon Gino Strada, who performs heart operations on eight needy Rwandan children. Kief Davidson’s docu struggles to balance the human-interest angle with complications involving the Sudanese government, though if awards were given directly to the causes, as often seems the Acad’s wont, “Heart” will be hard to beat.