This year's Oscar bait is a chum of hopeful kids and wistful old folks, according to the crop of nominated shorts. Let's go ahead and call it a genre, and call out its iffy habits: Good intentions exceed genuine tension, and character sympathy is stoked less by skilled dramatics than by the emotional residue of first-world-privilege guilt.
To wit: the rather handsomely gritty Kabul of Buzkashi Boys, in which a blacksmith's kid, spurred by his street-urchin pal, dreams of glory in the rough-and-tumble Afghan version of polo, played with a dead goat instead of a ball. Although produced through an NGO with an Afghan cast and crew, this is clearly an American director's movie, and maybe the one nominee most yearning for Academy approval. Whereas Asad, another tale of a kid facing down his fate, was made by an African, and feels more like a rough-edged fable. It's set in a Somali seaside village, and described as a tribute to its cast, refugees all, who "lost their country, but not their sense of hope."
A micro-scale version of that same dynamic occurs in Inocente, a warm but haunting documentary profile of a homeless San Diego teenager. Henry is the tender, fictive account of an elderly musician grasping at the fading memories of his youth; San Francisco filmmaker Sari Gilman (interviewed at SFWeekly.com) takes a group portrait of a Florida retirement home in Kings Point. The former is touching; the latter, bracing.
Some movieish entertainments do permeate the social-consciousness cloud. In the steampunky French-Belgian concoction Death of a Shadow, we meet a lovelorn soldier (Matthias Schoenaerts) stuck in a peculiar photography gig: snapping the moments of other people's deaths. With Curfew, about a down-and-out dude who babysits his niece, writer/director/star Shawn Christensen shows a fluency in coolly calculated indie mannerism: the choice soundtrack, the bowling alley dance number, the chemistry between pitiable fuck-up and precocious young foil. It's a self-actualizing bid for Hollywood's attention, and Christensen's surety should carry him far.