In the shadow of the feature nominations, the short films nominated for the Oscar are now available in limited theatrical release. Of the bunch, the controversial live action film “Detainment” is as heartbreaking and intense as anything nominated.
Directed by Vincent Lambe, “Detainment” chronicles the tragic and largely unexplainable 1993 events concerning the abduction and killing of a toddler. By sticking closely to transcripts from interrogations of the two English ten-year-olds later convicted of the crime, the film carefully retraces the steps through the boys’ statements. Because the admissions are the product of police questioning, the guarded children are somewhat evasive and riddled with half-truths.
Having two unreliable narrators proves to be interesting, especially given the harrowing facts that ultimately come out. By showing parts of both stories against the backdrop of what was confirmed, we get a peek into the minds of two unique, prepubescent killers. It’s makes for one sorrowful tale.
“Detainment” features convincing performances particularly from the two young leads, Ely Solan and Leon Hughes. The already fascinating case, involving the conviction of the youngest murderers in the modern era, becomes even more interesting when placed against the documentary backdrop of a hit series like “Making a Murderer.” For those of you not exposed to the Netflix “Murderer” series, one of the most infuriating aspects of the story involves an extended and manipulative custodial interrogation with accused (eventually convicted) murderer, the teenaged Brenden Dassey.
The interrogations of the ten-year-old boys shown in “Detainment” does seem more legitimate and reasonable than Dassey’s interrogation. The children’s parents are present, and efforts are made not to overcome the will of the accused. Still, like the interviews with Dassey, one wonders why the interviews are permitted to go for so long, with some pressure put on offenders of such a tender age. But the guilt in “Detainment” isn’t in question. The mystery is why they did it? What was their motivation? And the film offers some insight.
The controversy surrounding “Detainment” as a movie has become heated. The family of the deceased toddler, James Bulger, have demanded that the film be pulled from awards consideration. Director Lambe in an interview with Variety (https://variety.com/2019/film/news/oscars-2019-detainment-director-vincent-lambe-defends-film-1203116878/), said of the demands for him to withdraw the film from the Oscars:
“I understand the film at the moment is causing upset to the family and that’s probably the hardest thing for me to deal with now because I have so much sympathy for [them],” Lambe told Variety in an interview. “But I think it’s an important film, and if we were to withdraw it from the Oscars, it would defeat the whole purpose of making the film in the first place.
The mother of the Bulger has said that the film has made her relive the tragedy. Of course it does, and that is awful and regretful. In support of her and the family, a petition asking that the movie be taken from Academy Award consideration garnered in excess of 130,0000 signatures. But the director remains steadfast, believing in the importance of the work.
And this points out the place film has as a medium of social change. Here we have a dramatic dramatization made with exacting precision that provides a view of the confused minds of two disturbed children, who horribly took the life of another child. But the question is what can be gained from it?
Empathy is the key here. While the two killers, who have now been released from custody after reaching the age of majority, are not necessarily deserving of our sympathy, understanding what might have driven their actions is important. It’s something to be studied and considered, and “Detainment” does not glamorize or exploit the tragedy. The film is frank and unflinching, told as closely as possible to what really occurred. And if we forget this event, we may not be able to prevent such crimes in the future.
“Detainment” is an unpleasant film. But it’s also a humbling, horrific tale that encourages us to hold our children closer and to listen to their feelings, motivations, and needs.
The Oscar nominated shorts for 2019, animated and live-action, can be seen in Atlanta at the Landmark Midtown Art Cinema (https://www.landmarktheatres.com/atlanta/midtown-art-cinema).