Review: ‘Hair Love’ and docs stand out among 2020 Oscar-nominated shorts

In a scene from the animated short "Hair Love," an African American man embraces his daughter, both smiling with eyes closed.
The Oscar-nominated animated short “Hair Love” is a father-daughter story.

This year’s Oscar-nominated shorts batch is the usual mixed bag of globe-spanning stories, with seriousness outweighing softness.

The animation category is a quintet of clever two-handers about bonds new and old, perhaps tenuous but usually healing. There’s the unlikely connection a tough stray kitten makes with a chained pit bull (Rosanna Sullivan’s “Kitbull”), the way changing textures and art references depict altered domestic reality for a dementia-suffering painter (Bruno Collet’s inventive “Memorable”), and how a woman’s memory of her father’s impassivity transforms a hospital visit (Daria Kashcheeva’s rough-hewn puppet-motion entry “Daughter”).

Childhood memory kicks off Siqi Song’s stop-motion-with-felt gem “Sister” too, but his recounting of a younger sibling’s annoying habits masks a grimmer truth about growing up in China. The standout, though, is on the sweeter end of things: The small “a” and large “A” Afrocentric dad/daughter comedy “Hair Love” from directors Matthew Cherry, Everett Downing Jr. and Bruce W. Smith, truly a case of affairs of the (literal) head meeting matters of the heart by way of your funny bone and tear ducts. It’s quite the charmer.

In a scene from "Saria," a brown eye can be seen through a raggedy hole in semi-transparent material.
A scene from the Oscar-nominated live-action short “Saria,” directed by Bryan Buckley.

The live action shorts aren’t as sturdy in matching emotions and ideas with execution, but they have their moments. Yves Piat’s “Nefta Football Club” puts a donkey wearing headphones in the desert path of two soccer-loving Tunisian boys, and gets an agreeably pointed punchline out of how its cargo is used. Marshall Curry’s “The Neighbors’ Window” starts with tart voyeuristic humor about exhausted new parents and the younger, exhibitionist couple across the way, but falters when it reaches for a bridging poignance. There always seems to be a nominated short about a tense phone call, and this year it’s Delphine Girard’s peril scenario “A Sister,” which loses steam as it goes, but nevertheless feels rattlingly of the moment as a glimpse inside a common danger.


Most effective as complete works are Bryan Buckley’s arrestingly photographed docudrama “Saria,” which finds nourishing sisterhood amongst girls planning a bold escape from a hellish Guatemalan orphanage, and Meryam Joobeur’s anguished family tale “Brotherhood,” about a hard-headed Tunisian father struggling with his oldest son’s return from fighting in Syria with a burqa-wearing wife.

On the nonfiction side, this year’s short documentaries explore grim subjects with a variety of tones. Carol Dysinger’s “Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl),” about a school in Afghanistan, pushes too hard in selling its education-plus-fun uplift, playing like a pamphlet or zoo attraction more than a fully engaged film. And as affecting as the story of Missouri battle-rapper-turned-activist-congressman Bruce Franks Jr. is, Smriti Mundhra’s and Sami Khan’s sensitively drawn portrait “St. Louis Superman” is that rare instance of a subject seeming to demand longer, deeper treatment.

Yi Seung-Jun’s “In the Absence,” on the other hand, is a full-on devastating account of the 2014 Sewol ferry sinking off the coast of South Korea, unfolding like a waking nightmare of inept, callous and negligent disaster management that only got worse for the ferrygoers, their families, and the civilian rescuers who stepped in when nobody else would. From the you-are-there footage taken on the day to the attempts to seek justice in the aftermath, it’s a mind-blowing reminder of why accountability for bad-acting authorities should be at the core of any functioning society.

Paul and Millie Cao in the documentary short 'Walk Run Cha-Cha'
Paul and Millie Cao in the documentary short “Walk Run Cha-Cha,” a love story from Vietnam to Southern California dance floors.

The plight and perseverance inherent in migration informs both “Life Overtakes Me” and “Walk Run Cha-Cha.” The former, directed by John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson, explores a peculiar illness occurring in Sweden in which refugee children, traumatized by the insecurity of their migrant status, mysteriously enter a catatonic state. Coolly haunting scenes of coping families with eerily listless children against the beautiful, snow-covered Nordic countryside suggest a storybook danger straight out of David Lynch’s head, but one that’s impossibly real and heartbreaking.

Laura Nix’s equally artful, full-of-feeling “Walk Run Cha-Cha,” meanwhile, presents us with an inspiring immigrant couple whose 40-year love story from war-torn Vietnam to the ballrooms and dance studios of Southern California is the never-ending happy ending, the kind that sees painful memories, present-day joy, and what lies ahead as all part of the same dance. The steps require work, but the routine’s your own, and the right partner makes all the trouble so very worthwhile.

2020 Oscar Nominated Shorts

Not rated

Running times: Animated program, 1 hour, 25 minutes; live action program: 1 hour, 44 minutes; documentary program, 2 hours, 40 minutes

Playing: Starts Jan. 31 in general release