Three Oscar nominees tackle big issues with a tight focus.
The more difficult of two Oscar-doc theatrical programs despite its moments of relief, Program A of Magnolia’s touring Oscar Documentary Shorts package looks at race and policing, indifference to the elderly and extreme mental illness. Filmmakers find highly sympathetic subjects in all three cases, though, making this less of a downer than it might have been — though only in the last chapter are viewers likely to feel uplifted.
Traffic Stop covers the most familiar ground, introducing a young African-American woman whose education and career counted for nothing when a white cop decided she wasn’t being sufficiently submissive. We first meet Breaion King through the dashcam footage of Austin, Texas, police officer Bryan Richter, who stops her in a restaurant’s parking lot intending to cite her for speeding. Things don’t go smoothly, but King doesn’t seem to do anything that even approaches justifying the force Richter uses to subdue her — bodyslamming the very petite woman more than once and leaving her fearing for her life.
Director Kate Davis has more dashcam footage to share, including an appalling scene in which another cop, thinking he’s engaged in a healthy discussion of racism, tells her white people are afraid of black people because of their “violent tendencies.” But she intersperses this with peaceful scenes of King’s daily life, as she teaches math to elementary-school kids and rehearses at a dance class. The subtly made point, familiar from far too many stories in recent years, is that the threat of police violence haunts even those people of color whose lives are most blameless.
Laura Checkoway’s Edith + Eddie bears witness to a more slow-moving but still infuriating injustice. The film’s namesakes, a black woman and a white man, were married at the ages of 96 and 95: They met while playing the lottery, and it was “love at first sight.” But one of Edith’s daughters, worried that she won’t inherit as much as she expects, is trying to force her mom to move to Florida so the family can sell her house. A second daughter — the one who has been Edith’s caregiver for years — puts up a fight, but a court-appointed guardian sides with the plan to sell.
The scenario recalls Rachel Aviv’s shocking New Yorker reporting about how senior citizens lose their rights to guardians who barely know them. But in this case, the story feels incomplete: We naturally root for the newlyweds, who are feeble but want to spend their remaining time together. But we need at least to hear the other side’s reasoning, and learn more about how things got to this point. No matter what happened before Checkoway arrived, though, the film’s end is a heartbreaker.
Frank Stiefel’s set-closer is the freshest story of the three, revolving around a one-of-a-kind subject. Fifty-six-year-old artist Mindy Alper, whose life has been plagued by both problematic parenting and an array of mental-health issues, tells her own story, her language stumbling even when her thinking is perfectly clear. She’s frank and un-self-pitying while recounting long periods of depression and suicidal moods, including a bout when she didn’t speak for 10 years. But as bleak as the stories get — when she was a child, her mother suffered from her own condition, which made her fear even touching Mindy — the movie itself is upbeat, thanks not just to the subject’s spirit but to her art.
The scores of drawings we see display an enviable imagination, overflowing with visual metaphors for Alper’s inner world. Whether funny or harrowing, they transcend the genre of mental-illness art that is interesting largely because of who created it. Then, as we watch her create large papier-mache busts of the teachers and therapists who’ve helped her become self-sufficient, we see Alper shift her psychological focus outward, demonstrating more empathy for others than a person facing such challenges should be expected to have. The short’s title, Heaven Is a Traffic Jam on the 405, acknowledges that Alper is perfectly happy with any reason not to deal with other people for a while. But the gallery show that ends the film suggests that crowds might not be so bad for her, after all.
Distributors: Magnolia, Shorts TV
Directors: Kate Davis, Laura Checkoway, Frank Stiefel