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“2024 Oscar Nominated Short Films: Live Action” Review: Adding Sweetness to Serious Themes

Wes Anderson’s Elegant Roald Dahl Adaptation Brings Lightness to a Lineup of Serious Themes

Henry Sugar

If the Academy applied the same criteria to feature films as they do to live action shorts, the Best Picture ballot would be filled with star-studded, quasi-political issue-driven movies—well-intentioned yet manipulative films like “Father Stu” and “The Janes.” In this category, it’s the message that holds weight for Oscar voters, making this year’s “2024 Oscar Nominated Short Films: Live Action” lineup (exclusively available in theaters from ShortsTV) one of the most vexing selections in recent memory. However, there is a shining exception among them: “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar,” a genuinely brilliant and refreshingly lighthearted nominee among several delightful Roald Dahl adaptations crafted by director Wes Anderson for Netflix. But we’ll delve into that later.

The lineup kicks off with a Netflix short that falls short of expectations, “The After,” presenting a clumsily contrived portrayal of grief and the struggle to move forward. Starring “Selma” actor David Oyelowo as a businessman whose priorities are misplaced, the film depicts a senseless tragedy affecting his wife and daughter while he is preoccupied with work calls (a scenario that can occur but feels overly melodramatic as directed by photographer-turned-filmmaker Misan Harriman). A year later, the story finds the once-successful professional now working as a ride-share driver, grappling with the consequences of his neglect. While Oyelowo delivers a commendable performance, the film’s compressed runtime does little justice to the complexity of his character’s pain, making it difficult for viewers to fully invest in his eventual catharsis.

In “Red, White & Blue,” Nazrin Choudhury presents a poignant response to the reversal of Roe v. Wade, framed within the heartland backdrop reminiscent of a Nicholas Sparks film. The story follows a diner waitress (played by Brittany Snow) who, devastated by the results of a pregnancy test, grapples with the challenge of affording an abortion while already struggling to support her two children. Determined to find a solution, she resorts to raiding her daughter’s piggy bank for funds and embarks on a journey from Arkansas to Mississippi, where the procedure remains legal. Despite the initial misdirection employed by Choudhury, the film’s focus on female solidarity and resilience resonates powerfully, highlighting the importance of women supporting one another in the face of adversity.

In “Knight of Fortune,” named after a Danish pop song, camaraderie among men takes center stage. Predictably, audiences will hear the tune performed before the 25-minute short concludes, with surprises unfolding regarding how and by whom. Karl (played by Leif Andrée) finds himself at the mortuary to bid farewell to his late wife. The attendant grants Karl an unusual permission: “In this room, everything is allowed.” However, Karl struggles to say his goodbyes until he encounters Torben (portrayed by Jens Jørn Spottag), another mourner facing a similar emotional blockage. Director Lasse Lyskjær Noer infuses the film with style, reminiscent of last year’s winner “An Irish Goodbye,” yet both films share a common issue: while aiming for edginess by addressing morbid subjects with humor, they ultimately come across as rather tame.

An hour into the program, viewers encounter a nominee that feels “Oscar-worthy”: Canadian director Vincent René-Lortie’s enigmatic “Invincible,” which delves into the death of Marc-Antoine Bernier, a childhood friend whose tragic fate is unveiled in the opening scenes. At the age of 14, the troubled teenager drove a car into a river and drowned. The camera immerses viewers in the moment, pulling back to reveal the boy underwater — but then shifts to two days earlier, depicting him at home with family during a break from the juvenile detention facility. René-Lortie, an experienced music video and short film director, demonstrates a strong visual sense and refrains from imposing a personal interpretation on the teen’s rebellious actions. The mystery surrounding this wild, restless soul has evidently haunted the director for years, yet he allows the portrayal to remain ambiguous, bolstered by an exceptional lead performance from Léokim Beaumier-Lépine. Without the right actor, “Invincible” might have faltered.

The standout among the nominees is Wes Anderson’s short film, “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar,” which I have already extensively discussed. One of four Roald Dahl adaptations the director crafted for Netflix this year, the intricately woven 40-minute tale premiered with grandeur at the Venice Film Festival last year. While it shines brightly on the Netflix platform, its presentation in ShortsTV’s Oscar shorts program can feel uneven due to varying file qualities provided by filmmakers and studios.

Structured as a self-aware story-within-a-story, the project features a star-studded cast portraying multiple roles, including Ralph Fiennes as Dahl himself, alongside an entertaining montage showcasing Benedict Cumberbatch’s character, Henry Sugar, in a series of absurd disguises.

The Academy has a disappointing track record of overlooking the best film in this category, and it could happen again if voters perceive Anderson as too established for the prize. However, with eight nominations under his belt, Anderson is undoubtedly deserving, and it’s evident to anyone that he has crafted a short film for the ages — a clever fable that seamlessly blends his signature style with Dahl’s distinctive voice to create an unforgettable cinematic experience.

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