Four stars. Rating: G, PG and R, depending on the film
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.31.14
Much as I always enjoy the annual Oscar short subjects, I’ve noticed over time that many of the live-action nominees tend to be ... well ... quite depressing.
So when this year’s entry from Denmark, Helium, opened on a little boy in a hospital bed, I couldn’t blame my Constant Companion for shooting me a decidedly reproachful glance.
In fairness, director Anders Walter’s 23-minute fable is equal parts charming and poignant, despite building to a sad-yet-triumphant conclusion that you’ll anticipate 30 seconds in. And you’ll be right ... but you won’t be prepared for the gut-punch that comes with the quick final scene.
It’s an imaginative film, with Walter drawing expressive performances from young Pelle Falk Krusbaek, as the dying little boy in question; and Casper Crump, as the eccentric hospital janitor who concocts a progressively wild tale about the much more interesting, kid-oriented alternative to heaven that awaits true believers.
Be prepared, though: Walter’s film packs quite an emotional punch.
That’s also true of Spanish director Esteban Crespo’s That Wasn’t Me, which is likely to leave an intense mental scar long after the lights come up. Helium, for all its gentle power, is a work of fiction; Crespo’s film is ripped from today’s grim headlines regarding the cruel indoctrination and subsequent exploitation of child soldiers.
Spanish aid worker Paula (Alejandra Lorente) has naively followed her boyfriend Juanjo (Gustavo Salmerón) into an unspecified African country, hoping to Make A Difference. Based on their larkish demeanor, things have gone well thus far; that changes abruptly at a checkpoint, when a thuggish rebel army general (Babou Cham) decides to use these interlopers as human targets, in order to “blood” his young conscripts.
One of the latter is Kaney (Juan Tojaka), an adolescent with a fondness for soccer.
What follows is grim, graphic, tautly edited and heart-stopping; Crespo doesn’t let up for a moment, and — for a time — we’ve no idea where this 24-minute film is going. The complexity of the filmmaker’s vision becomes clear once we move toward the climactic third act, and the realization that Crespo wants us to understand that these young boys, no matter how bestial, are just as brutalized as the victims they’ve been brainwashed into fighting. Only as the film ends do we understand and appreciate its title.
It’s a thoughtful, harrowing drama: quite possibly the winner in this category.
Not that the competition isn’t stiff. French director Xavier Legrand also does excellent work with Just Before Losing Everything, a drama whose mere title makes us fear the worst (particularly given the reputation of these live-action shorts!). The opening sequence is deceptively bucolic, with young Julien (Miljan Chatelain) heading off for an average school day.
Except that he doesn’t.