Tropic Sprockets / The 2021 Oscar Shorts: Live Action

By Ian Brockway

The Live Action Short Film category has always been the most potent and provocative Oscar group. Happily, this year is no exception. In 2021, there is something for everyone, from the heartwarming to the warlike, the existential to the eerie. Yet again, Live Action remains in a class by itself.

From Palestine and directed by Farah Nabulsi “The Present” features a dedicated Palestinian father (Saleh Bakri) just trying to get through daily life with his daughter (Maryam Kanj) and wife (Maryam Basha).

Each day dad takes his daughter to school facing sarcasm, snide remarks and criticism from Israeli soldiers at checkpoints.

When his wife sends him shopping, dad thinks all is business as usual. The usual guard is not on duty, and he forgot his pass notification.

The guard doesn’t like the looks of him. Tension quickly escalates. The magic of this film is in its tense rhythm. This is life under a true oppressive reality. Nabulsi puts us right in the thick of it, with ridicule from soldiers, humiliation, might and dirty looks. Right until the very end, “The Present” will have you guessing.


“Feeling Through” by Doug Roland, is a sensitive character study.

Tereek (Steven Prescod), is a young homeless man with nowhere to go. Walking at night, he sees a man Artie (Robert Tarango) who needs help crossing. Artie is deaf and blind. At first Tereek balks, but the pair begin talking and go to a convenience store. Tereek helps him, struck by the older man’s Zen and inclusive manner. Tereek for his part remains a mystery. The final moments are a complete heartfelt surprise and will not fail to move you, and the acting by Prescod and Tarango is elegant and poetic—a master class in gesture.


“Two Distant Strangers” by Trevon Free is a percussive and dark “Twilight Zone” of a film that is a rare singular experience unto itself.

Carter (Joey Bada$$) is a black graphic designer on a date at his girlfriend’s house. He wakes from sleep thinking he is going home to see his dog. His girlfriend Perri (Zaria) breaks a glass accidentally and chastises him for leaving so quickly but then jokes about it. Carter says he wants to continue to see her with her consent.

He leaves the apartment, dropping a wad of cash and unfortunately bumps shoulders with an offended white man who has spilled his coffee on his white shirt. Carter apologizes repeatedly. An aggressive cop (Andrew Howard) is alerted, sees the wad of cash and after a few hostile orders, puts Carter in a deathly bone-crunching choke-hold.

The acting by both Bada$$ and Zaria is Oscar caliber and the narrative with all of the nervousness of a Jordan Peele thriller, is percussive and unrelenting. But better yet it delivers a fair amount of philosophic introspection along with its heaps of horror. The cop by himself is scarier than Pennywise, the clown. Blood is spilled in the shape of the African continent.

Nothing is guaranteed. The only way out is to say the names of George Floyd, Trayvon Martin, Philando Castile, Breonna Taylor and too many others as in a mindful incantation and never forget.


In “White Eye” by Tomer Shushan, Omer (Daniel Gad) reports he sees his stolen white bicycle. The police give him clearance to unlock it but he needs a machine. While Omer proceeds, an illegal immigrant food worker Yunes (Dawit Tekelaeb) says the bike is his. The police arrive. Omer is racked with guilt. Reminiscent of Camus, this film of moral dilemmas is an excellent slow burn, anxious in its mysteries.


Finally, Oscar Isaac delivers a fine restrained performance in “The Letter Room.” Isaac is Richard, a prison guard who is promoted to the letter office. Richard is taciturn and opaque, but he does care about the inmates. A loner, the guard gets addicted to the idea of Rosita (Alia Shawkat) and her sensual letters to a death row inmate.

Is Richard honest and good, or a blend of something else? One is never quite sure about Richard and what makes him tick, but the unknown in Richard is what makes him so compelling.


Each one of these shorts make for deep and enriching watching. Do not miss them.

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