Emelie is physiologically disturbed — she’s demented, she’s enraged, she’s the possessed offspring of a fire-breathing dragon and Saoirse Ronan. She’s also “Anna” (a stoic, maniacal Sarah Bolger), a babysitter operating with a stolen identity for the sake of a fulfilling her bizarre quest. Her presence becomes a nightmare, especially for the three children held captive by her existential angst. Anna lectures the children about “pretending,” and how it’s a super power — but only when used in accordance with her direction — and that’s not to mention her Sartre-approved affirmations concerning the inevitability of death.
If you were thinking of leaving your children at home anytime soon, I wouldn’t watch “Emelie” beforehand. Director Michael Thelin balances folklore with a picturesque naturalism in his bewitching debut feature, thanks to the looming, eerie presence of his antagonist. It’s a fractured fairy tale with black humor (just like the antagonist’s favorite color), landing somewhere between campy and artsy.
The film opens with quaint suburbia in the background — bike rides, soccer games, general pleasantries — but soon turns dark when a young woman is chloroformed and abducted. We know she was supposed to be babysitting that evening. Alas, someone else will have to take her place. Horror abounds in this small town.
Dan Thompson (Chris Beetem) picks up who he believes to be Anna at her address (enter Sarah Bolger), where we get a glimpse of her sodden, turquoise Converse sneakers as she waits on the front lawn. Dan and Anna chat; he confesses that they’re grateful Anna could come through at the last minute (the Thompson’s regular babysitter had an engagement) and expresses his sentiments on how she comes so highly recommended. When Anna retorts, coldly, upon being asked about her babysitting Facebook empire — “have you seen my page?” — it’s perhaps an all-too-obvious setup for what’s to come.
Meanwhile, at the Thompson family home, Joyce (Susan Pourfar) sits in front of her vanity mirror, dolling up for a night on the town with Dan, while their three children run amok, jumping on beds and obsessing over their handheld gadgets. Jacob (Joshua Rush), the eldest Thompson tyke, finishes pushing around baby brother Christopher (Thomas Bair) and lurks to his bedroom for a walkie talkie rendezvous with his best friend.
While mom and dad go over the specifics with Anna before going out for the night (have a few snacks, bed by 9:00, don’t touch the Corvette, etc.), she cleverly rolls her eyes at Joyce’s henpecking, intriguing Jacob, and triggering the descent into an insidious evening. Finally, the parents are gone (the opening isn’t particularly long, but for a 90-minute film, this sequence drags) and hedonism is awry in the Thompson house. Though Sally (Carly Adams), the middle child, argues that they shouldn’t ruin “the good pillows” or touch daddy’s football gear, Anna encourages the misbehavior, her mad, feline eyes growing at each instance of chaos.
The egregious deeds don’t stop there, all of this eventually erupts in scenes of escalating depravity. During a simple game of hide-and-seek Anna daintily fingers an axe in the garage, she removes all the shoelaces from the children’s’ shoes, and, at long last, she comes across the family safe, hiding Joyce and Dan’s sex tape. She forces all three children to watch, clinging onto Christopher as the older children sit there, horrified. Anna coaxes Jacob into the bathroom and enlists him to fetch her a tampon. Doe-eyed, Jacob does what she asks, and she inserts it in front of him, as they both get a glimpse of the blood oozing down the drain.
Aroused by her behavior and the cat-and-mouse dynamic (dad says he has quite the promiscuous browsing history), Jacob plays it cool and asks Anna to help feed his python (a really perturbing metaphor?), but when she brings the other two siblings along and feeds Sally’s (Carly Adams) beloved hamster to the reptile, it’s a symbol for Anna’s tightly wound grasp on the children — and the beginning of the end of Anna’s facade.
“Emelie” is terrifying because this character has relatable motivations. Acrimonious emotional wreckage seeps out of her and whirlwinds the three Thompson children into a hellish evening they’ll be sure not to forget. But there’s something not quite believable about the rest of the film. The parents measly, forced conversation at their anniversary dinner, and Emelie/Anna’s mysterious coconspirator watching them from afar, feels like a lackluster plot point thrown in to tie the script together. Emelie’s brief explanation of why she does these horrible things, and her desire to have a child of her own, ring true, but the explanation of her backstory through a penciled children’s tale doesn’t stand strong. More violence, more sexual innuendo and pedophiliac rapport, and more demoniac behavior from Sarah Bolger could have propelled the sluggish moments.
A low-budget, slow-burning film, Thelin and cinematographer Luca Del Puppo develop a relatable universe that never really gets too frightening, but it certainly digs into your conscience, and will make you think twice before letting a stranger into your house. [C]