Directed by: Michael Thelin.
Written by: Rich Herbeck and Michael Thelin.
Starring: Sarah Bolger (Emelie), Joshua Rush (Jacob), Carly Adams (Sally), Thomas Bair (Christopher), Chris Beetem (Dan), Susan Pourfar (Joyce), Elizabeth Jayne (Maggie), Dante Hoagland (Howie).
Emelie is a not-quite horror film that gets off to one hell of start, but never quite reaches that level again, despite the fine lead performance by Sarah Bolger. The film opens, from someone’s POV – who is watching the road from their vantage point in some trees. A teenage girl is walking down the street – a car approaches, and the driver asks if the teen girl is Anna – and when she says yes, she is quickly put in the car, that then speeds away. Before the movie has really started, it has already clunked the audience over the head, and surprised us with a great moment. Right after that scene, we see Dan (Chris Beetem) driving his car, with a teenage girl beside him. She is calling herself Anna, but we know she’s not – (you’d be right to intuit that this is the title character – Emelie). Dan doesn’t know this “Anna” – but she has come highly recommended by their normal babysitter, Maggie, who was busy that night, so she cannot watch Dan’s three kids as he and his wife go out to celebrate their 13th Wedding Anniversary. We know there’s something wrong with Emelie from the beginning – but she appears perfectly normal on the outside.
The bulk of the film will be about us – and the three kids she has been tasked to watch – finding out just how screwed up Emelie is. The oldest of the three kids is Jacob (Joshua Rush) – who is 11 – but too wild and untrustworthy to take care of himself, or his two younger siblings – this, of course, makes him the films ultimate hero. On pure principle, he doesn’t like Emelie at first – he wouldn’t like any babysitter – but he warms to her, however briefly, because she doesn’t treat him like a child. But the inappropriate behavior from her starts pretty soon – and steadily escalates. I won’t spoil exactly what she does – but it does get quite disturbing at times. This isn’t funny anti-social behavior – like Jonah Hill in The Sitter (although that wasn’t funny either, but it tried to be) – but the behavior of a sociopath.
In the title role, Sarah Bolger delivers an excellent performance – if there is a reason to see the film, it’s her work in it. She never overplays the role, keeping her behavior icy cold, as it slowly edges into cruelty, and then even more. It’s all the more chilling that way, and Bolger makes for an excellent villain. The film, though, never lives up to her work in it. Co-written and directed by Michael Thelin, the film seemingly wants to play with genre stereotypes – most of the time, the teenage girl at the center of the film is the victim turned heroine, not the psycho is a danger to the kids – but other than this role reversal, the film doesn’t really play hard enough with the conventions of the genre.
In its best moments, Emelie plays like a low rent Michael Haneke movie – that opening scene is very much inspired by Haneke, and there are moments in the film that recall films like The Seventh Continent and Funny Games. The film is at its best when it is actively trying to make the audience uncomfortable – not with the outright violence in film, nor in the scenes where the filmmakers lean too heavily on putting children in peril, which is too easy a crutch. Instead, it’s in moments that suggest something rotten in the house to begin with – the awkward dinner between the two parents, who reveal something’s about their family that aren’t quite right, or the way Emelie tries to “seduce” Jacob, as she invites him into the bathroom as she sits on the toilet, and asks him to fetch her a tampon. These are Haneke moments to be sure – revealing the characters baser nature lurking underneath the perfect seeming suburban façade of the surface.
But the film doesn’t push these far enough. The film is only 82 minutes long, and it feels like just as the film is starting to gear up, to push things into truly disturbing, Haneke-inspired levels, it backs off, and becomes a run of the mill thriller. It really comes to an end with a very disturbing bedtime story story that Emelie tells the kids – which is really her way of explaining her motives. The story works as she is telling it, yet once we know Emelie’s secrets, she isn’t as interesting anymore (and Haneke, never would have explained her motives anyway – he never does) and the final act of the film devolves into a standoff between Emelie and Jacob, that isn’t quite Home Alone level, although it has its moments when it looks like it could be headed that way.
Emelie isn’t really a successful film – although there is a very disturbing 30 minutes or so that makes me interested to see what Thelin is going to do next time out, and if he’s going to end up pulling his punches like he does here, or dive headlong into the depravity the film wants to go in. And even when the film doesn’t quite work, Bolger’s performance at least keeps things interesting. I want to see her play a psycho again sometime – perhaps even for Thelin. I just hope the movie is better when and if they do.