I’ll admit it. I’m a bit of a movie awards junkie. My wife and I love watching the Oscars–red carpet pre-show and all. We spend the months leading up to the ceremony trying to make sure we catch as many of the nominees as possible. We trade bets on who the likely picks will be for each of the categories.
Not a lot of people pay much attention to the Best Animated Short category, but this year, I’m seriously rooting for Dave Mullins’ and Dana Murray’s delightful little picture LOU to take home the Oscar. You might or might not remember this one, since it screened right before Disney-Pixar’s surprisingly charming sequel CARS 3 last summer, but in case you missed it, here’s a plot summary (warning: spoilers ahead).
We see children enjoying recess out on a playground before being summoned inside by the school bell. Now vacated, the playground is littered with the remains of children’s abandoned playthings, and we watch as a mysterious creature surreptitiously sweeps across the yard, snatching up these objects and depositing them in the nearby “lost and found” box–which is conspicuously missing the letters “L-O-U.” (We quickly realize that the elusive creature is an amalgamation of the various things that children have left behind on the playground over time.)
When the children next come out for recess, we watch them play from the creature’s delighted perspective. Suddenly, a playground bully comes into focus, taking things from others and adding them to his “collection” in his backpack. This angers the creature, who attempts to seize the backpack from the bully after the bell rings once more and all the other kids return to class. After an entertaining game of cat and mouse, during which the creature and the bully vie for possession of the backpack full of ill-gotten toys, the creature catches a glimpse of the child’s initials written on a garment of clothing and remembers a forgotten toy with the same initials at the bottom of the lost and found box. This toy–a stuffed rabbit–originally belonged to this child, but the creature remembers watching it being taken from him when he was himself bullied some time earlier.
As the bully charges toward the lost and found box, the creature simply holds the stuffed rabbit up high, arresting the child in his steps. But the creature refuses to relinquish the cherished item, instead loading the child’s backpack up with things that have been lost by others and, at the next recess period, motioning for him to return them to their owners. The bully starts by returning the toys we watched him take from others earlier in the film, but that’s not enough for the creature. Over and over again, he reloads the child’s backpack with things that he didn’t necessarily take from others, but which nevertheless he is to have a part in restoring to their rightful place.
By the end of the film, the bully is positively delighted with the joy of giving back, and he eagerly returns to the lost and found box with an empty backpack, ready for his next assignment. But much to his dismay, there’s nothing left to return–and the creature is gone (because he was comprised of all the things that have now been restored). Looking into the bottom of the box, the child finds that all that remains is the stuffed bunny that was taken violently from him, and we watch as he takes the toy in hand and hugs it close to himself.
It’s a poignant moment, but my favorite part comes next, when the moment is interrupted as the child is struck by a wayward football–the same one he previously stole from the children who are playing with it. We see the face of the child who threw the ball, his uncertainty about how to respond registering clearly. Then, in a delightful twist, the child motions playfully for the bully to throw the ball back, clearly inviting him to join the game. The short ends as the child delightedly throws the ball back and rushes toward the other players.
It’s a gem of a film, five minutes of cinematic mastery that I think ought to be required viewing for returning citizens and for anyone who truly wants to understand what restorative justice is all about.
The creature’s initial response is the same as all of ours: retributive ire. Its instinct is to take from the bully in the same manner that he has just taken from others, and we inwardly cheer the creature on as he darts comically across the yard, trying to evade the bully. But once we realize that the bully is himself a victim, everything changes. Suddenly, this child isn’t the real problem in this story, for he’s caught just as helplessly as all of us in the cycle of brokenness and oppression that plagues our world.
Though we’re not prepared to dismiss the bully’s behavior, we now feel compassion for him–and perhaps a bit of shame over our previous glee regarding his comeuppance.
But notice that the creature doesn’t simply require the bully to make amends. Yes–that’s there, too. Offenders should restore that which they have taken from the community (to the extent meaningfully possible). Still, the real JOY of this film comes when the bully is given an opportunity to do something profligately generous–to restore things that he never had a part in undoing in the first place. And the film doesn’t end merely with a return to the status quo. It ends with a scene of profound “shalom“–of a community that is better in the aftermath of how the creature chooses to deal with the offense than it was even before the offense occurred.
That, friends, is restorative justice in action. Let’s just hope the Academy honors LOU’s artistry with the accolade it richly deserves.