A Year in Shorts Day 349: "Aya"
While it’s relatively rare for films from non English-speaking countries to do well in the major Oscar categories (although that’s certainly changed in recent years), but they tend to do pretty well among the shorts. The category for Best Live Action Short especially is pretty reliable at churning out international nominees. And if that sounds like a pretty serviceable but unremarkable way to set up today’s short, that might just be because Aya is a pretty serviceable but unremarkable short.
Directed by Oded Binnun and Mihal Brezis and released in 2012, Aya is actually one of the longest films we've covered in our Year in Shorts. In fact, at 39 minutes and change, Aya only barely qualifies as a short by the Academy's rules. (Which is strange to me. A forty-five minute film is not exactly feature length, and yet it's ineligible for consideration as a short? What a world we live in.) Skirting eligibility rules seems to be Aya's thing in general as, despite its 2012 release date, the film was nominated at the 87th Academy Awards, which honored the best films of 2014. I know that with international films the rules surrounding release dates can be pretty fuzzy, but I think this is the most confusing example to date. Also a point of interest to someone, I'm sure, is that despite its international pedigree (the film is a French/Israeli coproduction), most of the film's dialogue is in English. Of course, given that English has taken on a prominent role as an international language and the fact that the film is about an international meeting between two people, I suppose that's hardly surprising. But I also suppose I'm getting ahead of myself, as I haven't even described the premise!
To whit- Aya follows it titular character (played by Sarah Adler), who is waiting for a friend at the airport. In one of those events that seems to only happen as inciting incidents for movies, a driver waiting for a Mr. Overby (a judge at the Arthur Rubinstein piano competition) asks Aya to hold his sign for a moment. When Mr. Overby arrives (played by Ulrich Thomsen, making his second appearance in a short film as a character who needs to be driven somewhere), Aya spontaneously makes the choice to be his driver. This also seems like one of those events which seem to only happen in the movies, although I know at least one person who would probably jump at the chance to drive Ulrich Thomsen around for forty minutes. In a lot of movies, this decision would either result in a tense thriller or a swooning romance, but Aya decides to take neither route. Instead what follows is a low key drama about two very lonely people slowly getting to know one another over the course of a car ride to Tel Aviv.
And while some people might find that premise rather boring or uninspired, I think it's one that holds a great deal of potential. Some of the best films in the world are just about people talking and getting to know one another over a short period of time. Unfortunately, most of that potential goes unrealized here. It doesn't help that neither Aya nor Mr. Overby are particularly interesting characters, with nothing particularly interesting to say. Before Sunrise this is not. Of course, one could argue that this is more realistic (most people aren't particularly interesting), but that's not really something I want in a movie, you know? I'm fine with a more low key story, even if it's typically not the sort of thing I go for, but you gotta give me something to make it worth my time. Perhaps with some crackling dialogue or more dynamic direction, Aya would be more my speed. Who's to say?
Which isn't to say that the film has nothing going for it. If anything it's worth watching for the performances of the two leads alone. While Ulrich Thomsen is a pretty big star in his native Denmark, he doesn't often get much to do in Hollywood films outside of playing the heavy, so it's nice to see him in a role that shows off a different side. He is charismatic and often quite funny in a way that feels very genuine and unforced. Sarah Adler is even less well known across the globe, and this film makes a compelling argument for this to change. The role of Aya must be a pretty difficult one to nail down, but she manages to sketch out a complete character, conveying a great deal of information with just the slightest facial gesture. The two have good, oddball chemistry together, often finding the humor and heart in moments that the film doesn't always seem inclined to elaborate on. Aya doesn't often rise to meet the performance the actors give it, but they certainly elevate it to something that's worth watching at least once.
That is not, I admit, a ringing endorsement, but it's not nothing either. One great thing about short films is they provide the opportunity to provide less famous actors with a leading role, and sometimes that's enough. Of course, sometimes a short takes a different approach, casting big name actors in the leading roles in an attempt to gain some easy traction come awards season. And sometimes that works out for them, as is the case for that year's winner, The Phone Call starring Sally Hawkins. I haven't seen that film, so I can't speak to whether or not it deserved the Oscar. (Of course, The Phone Call ALSO stars Jim Broadbent, so that's a pretty good sign if you ask me.) At any rate, I'm not upset that Aya lost, but I'm not upset that I watched it either. Sometimes that's all you can say.
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