Review: 'Two Distant Strangers' highlights stellar class of Oscar shorts

Oscar-Nominated Short Films program, a favorite on the Detroit Film Theater's annual calendar, unfolds virtually beginning Friday

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

A White cop and a young Black man are caught in an endless cycle of violence in "Two Distant Strangers," an invigorating "Groundhog Day"-style tale with a social justice twist, and one of the highlights of the 2021 Oscar-Nominated Short Films program. 

Even in an off year for the Oscars (and for Hollywood in general), the Oscar Shorts program — which presents the Academy Award-nominated short films in three categories, Best Short Film (Animated), Best Short Film (Live Action) and Best Documentary (Short Subject) — delivers. The entire program plays at the Detroit Film Theater's Virtual Cinema, the Main Art Theater in Royal Oak and the Maple Theater in Bloomfield Township beginning Friday, while Ann Arbor's Michigan Theater will show the Animated Shorts beginning Saturday and the Live Action Shorts beginning April 10. 

Joey Bada$$ and Andrew Howard in "Two Distant Strangers."

"Two Distant Strangers," a nominee in the Best Short Film (Live Action) category, stars Brooklyn rapper Joey Bada$$ as Carter, a New Yorker who wakes up one morning in the loft of a woman, Perri (Zaria), and begins making his way home to feed his dog.

Outside her place, he runs into a cop, Officer Merk (Andrew Howard, scary good), who begins questioning him. An altercation ensues, Carter is wrestled to the ground and Merk puts his knee to the neck of Carter, who as he's being choked out screams, "I can't breathe!" 

Carter suddenly awakens, back in bed. As he makes his way out Perri's place he once again runs into Merk, and while the particulars of their situation changes, the outcome remains the same, with Merk killing Carter. And Carter awakens yet again to repeat the scenario over and over. 

The time loop framework of "Groundhog Day" has become a genre unto itself, with "Palm Springs" and "Boss Level" among the recent examples where protagonists find themselves trapped inside a mechanism where they keep living the same day. "Two Distant Strangers" — written by Travon Free and directed by Free and Martin Desmond Roe, with a roster of producers that includes Sean "Diddy" Combs, Kevin Durant and "Pulp Fiction's" Lawrence Bender — adds a twist of real life, ripped-from-the-headlines drama to the mix, and an overhead shot of the city at one point shows a rooftop with the names George Floyd, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Breonna Taylor, Michael Brown and Tamir Rice scrawled on top. 

Free is an Emmywinning writer, a veteran of "The Daily Show" and “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee," and he adds heart and humor to what could be an overwhelmingly grim tale. "Two Distant Strangers" is one of 2020's most powerful films, period — full length or otherwise — and needs to be seen by as large an audience as possible. (Outside of the Oscar Shorts program, "Two Distant Strangers" begins streaming on Netflix on April 9.) 

The other films showing in the Best Short Film (Live Action) category are "Feeling Through," a compassionate drama about a homeless man who befriends a blind, deaf man one night and helps him find his way home; "The Letter Room," starring Oscar Isaac as a corrections officer whose job it is to handle inmate mail at a prison; "White Eye," which unfolds in a 20-minute one-take shot, about prejudice and revolving around a stolen bicycle in Tel Aviv; and "The Present," a drama bout a Palestinian man who crosses over into the West Bank with his young daughter to secure a gift for his wife, and the frustrations that come from various security stops and checkpoints along the way.

Grief, in animated form

In the Best Short Film (Animated) category, a couple is overtaken by grief in "If Anything Happens I Love You," a stark study in a marriage torn apart from writer-director team Michael Govier and Will McCormack.

A couple is seen, distant and not communicating with one another, the shadows of their arguments manifesting around them as they look away, not wanting to make eye contact. The final moments of the 12-minute short bring the source of their anguish into focus, and it's a gut punch that all too many parents will understand about the realities of raising a child in today's world, and especially today's America. 

A still from "If Anything Happens I Love You."

"Genius Loci," from director Adrien Merigeau, is an impressionistic and deeply French journey into an urban world that plays like a watercolor fever dream. "Burrow" is a cute but slight story of animals finding their home beneath the ground, and "Yes-People" centers on the routines and behavioral patterns of a group of people in an Icelandic apartment building. 

The most striking of the animated nominees is "Opera," Erick Oh's breathtaking one-shot look at society, religion, the class system, war, politics and the entire human experience, which unfolds as a massive slow pan across the pyramid of humanity. More than a short film, it's a sprawling art piece, and deserves to be hung in a museum on as big a canvas as possible and watched on loop, as there's far more going on it than can be picked up in a single viewing. 

A trio of other animated shorts is being shown with the program: "The Snail and the Whale, a gentle tale of friendship and adventure about a snail who longs to sail and logs quite a trip on the tail of a friendly whale, which brings Julia Donaldson's 2003 children's book to life; "Kapaemahu," about the history of a group of "healing stones" on Waikiki Beach in Honolulu; and "To Gerard," a sweet story of an aging dreamer who gets the chance to share his gift with a young apprentice. 

On the front line in Hong Kong

In the Best Documentary (Short Subject) category, "Do Not Split" is an immersive, on-the-ground account of the 2019 unrest in Hong Kong that erupted over the anti-Extradition Law Amendment Bill, which would have allowed extradition to mainland China and which Hong Kong citizens fought back against as a violation of their civil liberties.

Director Anders Hammer brings viewers inside the volatile situation, which only ceased due to the coronavirus pandemic, and he shows the fear, the intensity and the sacrifice at the heart of the fight for the soul of the city. It's extremely harrowing stuff.

"Hunger Ward" is an equally harrowing account of the inside of a facility in Yemen where malnourished children are treated, and directors Skye Fitzgerald and Michael Shueuerman go inside the horror with an unflinching, unblinking eye. 

In "Colette," director Anthony Giacchino takes viewers along with Colette Marin-Catherine, a 90-year-old former member of the French Resistance, as she visits the site of the concentration camp where her brother was killed three-quarters of a century ago. "A Love Song for Latasha" is a tribute to the life of Latasha Harlins, a Los Angeles teenager who was shot and killed in a convenience store owner in 1991 over a $1.79 container of orange juice. She was only 15-years-old. 

Horace Bowers Sr. in "A Concerto is a Conversation."

And in "A Concerto is a Conversation," directors Ben Proudfoot and Kris Bowers stage a simple conversation between Bowers, an L.A. composer, and his grandfather, Horace Bowers Sr. Or, more to the point, Kris listens as Horace tells him the story of how he moved to Los Angeles with a few bucks in his pocket and started a legacy. It's a story of American individualism and entrepreneurship that is worthy of celebration — and maybe even an Oscar. 

2021 Oscar-Nominated Short Films

GRADE: A

Running times: Animated Shorts (99 minutes), Live Action Shorts (130 minutes), Documentary Shorts (136 minutes) 

Rated: PG-13-R

Starts Friday at Detroit Film Theater's Virtual Cinema, the Main Art Theatre in Royal Oak and the Maple Theater in Bloomfield Township.

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama