The five international shorts nominated for Best Live Action Short Film are competently made and individually compelling, but I can’t say any demonstrably raised my temperature. Maybe it’s only an effect of the inherent ungainliness of watching five films in a row so wildly divergent in style and subject matter – god knows, nobody benefits from watching a cutesy-wutesy short about a Swedish wannabe illusionist next to films set in ravaged Chernobyl and an Indian slave-labor camp. Patrik Eklund’s “Instead of Abracadabra” does provide a spot of humor and whimsy in a lineup that is mostly bleak business, but it pushes the same buttons as Napoleon Dynamite
, Arrested Development
, the entire Wes Anderson oeuvre – and about a decade too late. The Australian “Miracle Fish” centers around a misunderstood youth, although the 8-year-old, perpetually bullied Joe (Karl Beattie), isn’t a conduit for yuks. Writer/director Luke Doolan does a nice job building tension in his eerie, largely silent piece, but he’s not altogether effective in evoking Joe’s inner life; the climax leaves one wondering if little Joe is brave, wise, or just too dim to know any better – an unwelcome distraction. Juanita Wilson’s “The Door” is similarly short on words: Its minutes-long opening, in which a man breaks into an abandoned and barbed-wired housing complex, is spookily silent. Eventually, the man (played by Igor Sigov) speaks in voiceover – ”We didn’t just lose our town, we lost our whole world” – and one wonders if there is anything so defeated-sounding as the Russian language. Working from “Monologue About a Whole Life Written Down on Doors: The Testimony of Nikolai Fomich Kalugin" in Svetlana Alexievich’s book Voices From Chernobyl
, Ireland native Wilson creates a small-scale, but fully realized, portrait of the effects of history’s most devastating nuclear accident without ever so much as uttering the "C" word. It’s the most emotionally affecting of the lot, although the Indian/American co-production “Kavi” comes close. "Kavi" concludes with a sobering statistic – that 27 million citizens of the world are trapped in modern slavery – and writer/director Gregg Helvey does an admirable job dramatizing that plight via Kavi (Sagar Salunke), a young boy who dreams of playing cricket and attending school but must instead clear bricks night and day to pay off his father’s indentured servitude. Director Joachim Back’s “The New Tenants” doesn’t exactly lighten the mood, but it does give it a wicked black-comedy spin. David Rakoff, whose distinctive voice will be recognized from his This American Life
personal essays, stars in “The New Tenants,” as well as adapts from an original script by Anders Thomas Jensen (Brothers
). Rakoff plays one half of a squabbling couple (indie character actor Jamie Harrold plays the other half), who move into a new apartment only to find themselves the unhappy host to the previous tenant’s loose ends. Some of Back’s tics feel affected – an awkward camera framing, a phony-feeling waltz – but the well-rounded cast, featuring Vincent D’Onofrio and Kevin Corrigan, and its pleasing hyper-verbalness (especially when set next to the other films’ tight-lippedness) make “The New Tenants” the most purely pleasurable short in the program.