The beauty of the short film is that it can provide the same amount of catharsis of a full-length movie while demanding far less of a time commitment. At this point in my life, it feels as if the genre exists solely for parents of young children, for those of us who can fall asleep during the previews before a feature film. Whatever demographic you fall in, if you have twenty minutes to spare tonight, look no further than the Oscar-winning live-action short film, “The Neighbors’ Window.”

The film takes place in New York City within the apartment of Alli and Jacob, a 40-something couple with two young kids and a baby. One evening, after the kids have been put to bed and the toys have been put away, Alli and Jacob are sitting at their dining table, blankly staring out the window, when Alli notices a couple in the apartment on the opposite side of the street. They’re young, they’re sexy, and they’re making passionate love with nary a single undergarment. After a few minutes of gawking — “They should buy some drapes”; “It’s so disgraceful!” — they’re both lured into the magic of seeing into the secret lives of strangers. In Alli’s words, “It’s like a car crash that you can’t look away from — a beautiful, sexy car crash.”

The next scene, Alli and Jacob’s lives go on as usual. There’s the usual scorekeeping one often finds in a marriage with kids — “I just spent my whole Saturday haggling about contracts and recoupment schedules while you guys were out having fun” vs. “I would give anything to haggle a recoupment schedule after taking three kids to the zoo in the snow!” — but one thing has changed. Alli and Jacob now have their own round-the-clock reality show at their disposal; a reality that is far better than their own. They suddenly find themselves trapped in a real-life Instagram binge. While Alli and Jacob’s days are spent cleaning up accidents and arranging drop-off times, the young couple across the street is clearly living their best lives now. “All they do is host dance parties and sleep till noon and screw,” Alli complains, which is really an indirect way of bemoaning her own sorry state of affairs. She and Jacob are tired. They’re feeling old and obsolete. They miss their younger days full of hope and promise.

Seasons and holidays come and go in a charming montage. We watch Alli and Jacob’s busy lives which look more like treading water than any kind of growth or progress. All the while, each of them periodically steals away to catch a glimpse of the apartment across the street like it’s a guilty pleasure. The film zeroes in on Alli’s perspective. As she finds more and more time to glance at her alter-egos, she finds solace in her jealousy. She is living both vicariously and resentfully. By judging the people across the street, she deflects the judgment that would otherwise be pointed at herself.

Until something happens. Alli looks over one night to find the young couple sitting at the dinner table in a sad embrace. In the next scene, they notice the guy across the street has shaved his head. He looks so bad that Jacob hardly recognizes him (“Is that the guy?”). Over the course of the next few minutes, we see the man grow more and more decrepit. We see his friends and relatives come to bid him farewell. We see the coroner and his assistant come to take the man away in a body bag. That’s when Alli decides to finally make herself known.

She walks across the street just as the woman is accompanying the coroner out to the van to take her husband’s body away. The woman’s face is buried in her hands as Alli walks up to her and asks if she’s OK. As she looks up at Alli, she freezes. She clearly recognizes Alli. “Do you live across the street? I think our apartments face each other,” she says; “I hope that doesn’t seem creepy. Your children are really adorable and hilarious. My husband has been really sick and we would look over and see your kids and you or your husband sitting up at night to feed the new baby, it was….” She can’t bring herself to finish the sentence.

The film ends with Alli back in her own apartment, greeting her family as they return from another adventure in the city. She takes one more look out the window with wonder and pity right before the credits roll.

Of course, it would be easy to try to make sense of the film by framing its story with moral messages: be more present; be grateful for what you have; stop comparing yourself with others. The film, however, succeeds in that its story is not meant to be a metaphor. It’s simply a description of real life. This is how we live. We take our lives for granted. We compare ourselves with others. Occasionally, something will happen to shock us out of this tendency to do so, and yet we’re powerless to fight the tendency on our own. We simply can’t look away from the neighbors’ window.

Still, there is hope. As Alli and Jacob were watching their neighbors, they were unaware that they themselves were being watched. Not with judgment or envy, but with love and admiration. Alli and Jacob’s own trials with raising children were seen as blessings in themselves. Not in a hollowly optimistic way, but in a way that only dying people can appreciate. The dying, unlike the living, are given eyes to see that everything in life — even the mundane struggles — is grace. This isn’t to diminish the reality that raising children is difficult. It’s just to say that there is more to the picture. Unfortunately, one often has to be in the apartment across the street in order to see the beauty amidst the chaos. Hope, it seems, is something that only comes from the outside.

Perhaps the reason why “The Neighbors’ Window” is so compelling is because it’s based on a true story which was featured in a 2015 episode of the podcast Love and Radio entitled “The Living Room.” Its main character, Diane Weipert, a wife and mother of a three-year-old, once found herself as the voyeur of an attractive couple in an apartment at eye-level across a garden. When the neighbor’s lover (Diane never knew if he was a boyfriend or husband) died of illness, Diane found herself as one of three people at the man’s deathbed, along with his mother and his lover. When the coroner came to take the man’s body, Diane decided to go over to the apartment; but, just as she arrived to see the man’s body be lifted into a van, she was too embarrassed to say anything to the woman. To this day, if she ran into the woman, Diane swears she wouldn’t say anything to her.

It’s hard to blame Diane for not outing herself as a voyeur, but it’s also sad that her neighbor has no idea how much Diane cares about her. In the podcast, Diane sees her neighbor months after her lover’s death. She’s wearing a baggy t-shirt and dancing around her apartment. This young woman, who Diane was so bitter about, is now the object of Diane’s affection. Diane admits that she now feels protective, even maternal about her neighbor, a person she still has never met — “She doesn’t know that this person — this complete stranger — is out there, really rooting for her.”

Both of these stories present a dichotomy that is both sad (see also “creepy”) and profound. On the one hand, it’s sad that we are so easily drawn to judge the lives of others (spectating, I would argue, is a form of judgment), especially when our judgments are delivered from such a distance. Voyeurism, reality TV, and everyday gossip only go to show that our need to judge the lives of others comes from the deeper need to deflect judgment directed at our own lives.

And yet, both of these stories offer a faint echo of an even greater truth — that we are not alone. That there is One who watches over his children as their days increase, who neither exploits them as if their lives were merely a spectator sport, nor judges them without mercy. Rather, He is active in their lives. He blesses and guides them wherever they may be; He keeps them unspotted from the world; He strengthens them when they stand; He comforts them when discouraged or sorrowful; and He raises them up if they fall.

Amidst my own mundane struggles, I find little comfort in the idea that God is watching over me or is even there to help me notice the silver linings of my life. Thankfully, God is no voyeur. Time and time again, I find that He is not only watching, but He is right there with me. And He makes His presence known.