Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
April 2016


Birds, bees and babysitters

Innocence falls when the mysterious new sitter arrives in Emelie

Dark Sky Films
Director: Michael Thelin
Screenplay: Rich Herbeck
Starring: Sarah Bolger, Joshua Rush, Carly Adams, Susan Pourfar, Chris Beetem and Thomas Blair
Rated R / 1 hour, 20 minutes
Limited release / VOD
(out of four)

"They're grown-ups, they're allowed to have fun whenever they want; we're kids, we're supposed to be working!"
- George Michael Bluth, Arrested Development

Fundamentally, the evil-babysitter plot comes down to a role reversal. The parents finally get a chance to go out and play, to have no responsibilities, to have fun and not worry about anything ... while back at the house, the kids find themselves suddenly tasked with defending the home, protecting each other, perhaps even - as is certainly the case in Emelie - confronting a few other grown-up realities their parents hadn't quite gotten around to discussing yet.

And so the best laid plans of moms and dads go askew. It's a subgenre laced with a particular and unavoidable irony; the parents having temporarily handed over their responsibilities, only for the cradle of relative innocence and safety they've so carefully cultivated for their children to shatter in someone else's keep. The kids may be the ones in danger, but the joke is on the parents.

If nothing else, Emelie deserves credit for actually tackling that idea head-on. It's not merely an obligatory result of the plot, but a deliberate provocation by the babysitter herself. She goes out of her way to corrupt the three children she's in charge of. When 11-year-old Jacob stumbles into the bathroom while she's on the toilet, she just sits there with an eerie comfort on her face, and calmly asks him to find a tampon. Her idea of movie night is to play the parents' homemade sex tape for the kids. Oh, and she found what Dad has hidden in that lockbox in the closet, too.

All the while, the parents (played by Susan Pourfar and Chris Beetem) are across town having a pleasant anniversary dinner, none the wiser.

There's a particularly knowing manner to her behavior toward Jacob - who, as the oldest, is her primary adversary, the most likely to discover and spoil her dastardly plot (as if her less-than-virtuous motives were any secret, considering her behavior). The way she treats him - as if he's older, as if he knows more than he does - borders on flirty. Or at the very least, "flirty" in the way any 11-year-old boy who's had a crush on his babysitter might interpret it. It's clear she's trying to make an ally of him, though exactly how or why she would expect to pacify him while being so increasingly obvious in her intentions is another matter, and that's where the film runs into problems that a smarter script could have avoided.

We can't expect normalcy or rational behavior from this character (nor, in a genre film like this, would we even want it). But there are specific, emotionally driven reasons for what she's doing, and her actual behavior runs completely counter to getting what she wants. It plays like too obvious a signal - both to us and the kids themselves - that this person is insane. She doesn't come across as mentally unhinged or unpredictable, but instead as a cruel provocateur, which doesn't mesh with the very clear-cut reason why she's doing what she's doing.

The calmness of Sarah Bolger's lead performance is meant to contrast the lunacy of her actions and intentions - an effect that works, but only up to a point. The film, directed by Michael Thelin from a script by Rich Herbeck, falls apart once we find out exactly what's going on. In trying to be resourceful in its explanation, Emelie instead gives us a clumsy backstory by way of a bedtime story. In one scene, we find out exactly what "Anna" (the name of the babysitter who was supposed to be there before getting quite unceremoniously disposed of in the opening scene) is up to, and from there the ambiguous terror that had at least been intermittently successful dissolves almost completely, leaving us with a garden-variety horror-movie villain in its place. The explanation, as explanations so often do, undercuts the uncertainty and strangeness that had been the film's saving grace.

And so we shift into plot mode. Inevitably, this means the inclusion of the completely uninteresting parents, who become involved in the resolution of the story in a way that's suddenly aggressive in its B-movie cheapness.

It's not uncommon for a movie to lose its footing once it has to start explaining itself, so Emelie is in crowded company. But like many similar examples that came before, it can't survive the shift in style, purpose and narrative clarity that clicks in once Anna/Emelie finishes telling that bedtime story and we understand everything. Sometimes - often - unspoken motives are better left unspoken.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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