Thursday, March 24, 2016

Stutterer (2015)

1 Nomination, 1 Win

Win: Best Short Film, Live Action - Benjamin Cleary and Serena Armitage

Stutterer Short Film Academy Award winner

Watching the nominees for Best Short Film, Live Action in any given year can be a relatively traumatic experience; of the five nominated films, three or four can be counted on to be gut punches of emotion, trying to outdo each other in what horrors they can foist upon the characters. This year's nominees were no exception to this rule, with themes of childbirth in a warzone, the death of a child in another warzone, and the abduction of a child. Between viewing each of these films, I was relieved by the relatively lighthearted "Ave Maria," but was especially grateful for the lovely film "Stutterer" for bringing a sincerity and sweetness not found in any of the other nominated films.

Starring the soulful Matthew Needham, "Stutterer" depicts Greenwood, a young man with the titular speech impediment battling his insecurities to find love.  The plot is simple and the lead performance understated, but director Benjamin Cleary introduces emotional and technical complexity in his contrast between the silence of what is depicted and the voiceover of Greenwood's thoughts.

On a personal note, as someone who has battled speech impediments for my entire life, I am used to seeing impediments depicted in a comical and mocking manner on screen.  Cleary represents Greenwood's impediment with dignity and respect, neither minimizing the challenges it presents nor mining it for humor or sympathy.

"Stutterer" is a sweet, deceptively simple film that quietly and confidently builds a strong central character through equal parts expertly written voiceover and a lovely collaboration between director and performer.

Matthew Needham in Stutterer short film, winner of an Academy Award

Matthew Needham in Stutterer short film, winner of an Academy Award

Matthew Needham in Stutterer short film, winner of an Academy Award

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Chau, Beyond the Lines (2015)

1 Nomination, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Documentary, Short Subject - Courtney Marsh and Jerry Franck

Watch Chau, Beyond the Lines on Netflix

In addition to the 24 competitive categories currently recognized by the Academy at the Oscars ceremony, over the past several years there has become an unofficial 25th category, that of "Most Difficult Shoot."  This past year, The Revenant's awards campaign focused on the difficult conditions faced by the filmmakers as much as it did on the film's artistic merit.  Last year, we heard about the longstanding 12-year dedication of the cast and crew of Boyhood, and the year before that we heard about the hours Sandra Bullock endured in a harness for the filming of Gravity.

No disrespect intended toward The Revenant, but my vote for the Most Difficult Shoot Oscar goes to Courtney Marsh and Jerry Franck for their moving and well crafted documentary short Chau, Beyond the Lines.  Director Courtney Marsh told The Moveable Feast that what was initially intended to be a 24-hour shoot during a trip to Vietnam instead became an eight-year project by a first-time filmmaker working in a country whose language she did not speak and telling a story that didn't reveal itself until years after the project commenced.

It is a testament to Ms. Marsh's nascent talents that, even as she was still learning the rudiments of her craft, she was able to create such a compelling and satisfying documentary as Chau, Beyond the Lines.

The film follows the transition of Chau - a Vietnamese teenager disabled by the effects of the use of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War - from his teenage years living in a Ho Chi Minh City care center through his transition to adulthood and independence.  Initially the film focuses on Chau's disability, an unsatisfying decision as Chau is not prone to reflecting upon his disability.  He is singularly focused on twin goals of independence and pursuing a career as an artist.  Ms. Marsh showed remarkable dexterity in adapting the focus of the film, shedding the initial themes and instead focusing on Chau's artistic ambitions.

Chau, Beyond the Lines doesn't look deeply into Chau's art, and does not question - nor does it ask the viewer to question - whether Chau's art is in any way remarkable.  The film's narrative carefully focuses on Chau, never falling into the easy trap of diving into tangential subjects like a wider look at Agent Orange, the art world's response to Chau, or any number of possibilities that are all too common for documentaries.  This singular focus is what makes the film special.

For a population that is all too often made silent, Chau, Beyond the Lines gives Chau the forum to speak entirely for himself.