Monday, December 06, 2010

Shortlisted: Ana’s Playground

They say sport brings people together. Sometimes, maybe. However, there is nothing like a warzone to challenge our clichés. For one little girl, the retrieval of a soccer ball becomes a harrowing experience in Eric D. Howell’s Ana’s Playground (trailer here), which has been shortlisted for Oscar consideration as best live action short film.

Welcome to battlefield Minneapolis. Of course, the spelling of Ana’s name and the soccer/football match heard on the radio also evoke the tragic Balkan conflict. However, Ana and her racially mixed friends seem to be a harmonious unit. The strafed world around them is a different story. Their survivals instincts are finely honed, but when their ball (and only apparent source of amusement) clears a protective fence, all bets are off. As the one drawing the short straw, Ana finds herself dodging sniper fire on her deadly errand.

As disturbing as it is to watch, there is no denying the compelling tension Howell steadily builds, employing dramatic close-ups and intriguing perspectives. Cinematographer David Doyle gives the film an austerely polished look that conveys the coldness of Ana’s world, while production designer David Weiberg convincingly turns Minneapolis’ Ralph Rapson designed Cedar Square West apartment high-rise (the home of Mary Richards in the final years of The Mary Tyler Moore Show) into a grim urban combat zone. However, viewers should probably ignore the film’s list of non-profit endorsers, because the interests of at least one affiliated group might telegraph where the film is headed.

Still, what most distinguishes Playground is the performance of Raven Bellefleur as the young protagonist. Based on her work as Ana, she seems to have potential to become either a serious dramatic actress or an action movie star.

Arguably, Playground would be more effective if its conflict were explicitly rooted in recent history and not de-contextualized into an abstract cautionary morality tale. After all, Howell is trying to remind us this is happening in the world today. Of course, as a Minnesota based filmmaker, he had the constraint of filming in a notoriously clean and polite environment. It is an impressive production, featuring an excellent lead performance from Bellefleur. When also taking into account its message and support from child advocacy groups, Playground seems like a good bet for a nomination. If so, look for it to play as part of the Academy’s short film showcase screenings early next year.