Title: Emoticon ;)
Director: Livia De Paolis
Starring: Michael Cristofer, Livia De Paolis, Miles Chandler, Diane Guerrero, Allie Gallerani, Carol Kane, Sonia Braga
The directorial debut of multi-hyphenate Livia De Paolis and a mid-week world premiere at the Dances with Films Festival, “Emoticon ;)” (yep, smiley face included, technically) delves into early-onset mid-life uncertainty by way of a career-minded woman’s unexpected pregnancy, and the unlikely friendships she develops with the two teenage kids of her much older lover. Professionally mounted and attractively photographed, this independent production is a fresh, off-the-beaten-path conceit that gets mileage from its willingness to examine notions of non-nuclear family and changing identity.
The story centers around Elena (De Paolis), a 33-year-old PhD. candidate whose boyfriend, Walter (director Michael Cristofer, taking a turn on the other side of the camera), is a divorced father in his 60s. His two kids — teenagers four months apart adopted from separate birth mothers when they were babies, Mandy (Diane Guerrero) and Luke (Miles Chandler) — are at first wary of the presence of yet another new woman in their dad’s life, but when it seems like Elena will be sticking around they open up a bit and Elena wins them over. While would-be singer Luke deals with with the confusion surrounding his first relationship, Hispanic Mandy makes a new friend with a similar ethnic background and finds herself wondering about her biological roots. After having never wanted children previously, meanwhile, when Elena becomes pregnant, she weighs whether her attitude has changed.
Working from a script co-written with Sarah Nerboso, De Paolis proves herself to be a capable filmmaker and an interesting writer, at least from a theoretical perspective, as “Emoticon” avoids a lot of the pitfalls of vanity writer-director-actor projects, wherein supporting characters get shunted off to the sides. There’s an easy, unforced quality to in particular the adolescent performances here, and “Emoticon” connects early on for these very reasons. It’s rooted in character, and not concerned with the overly rigid dictates of a capital-N narrative.
Unfortunately, once Elena’s pregnancy is introduced, the film’s plotting starts to lean more heavily on artificial construction. There’s forced parallelism (a pregnancy scare involving Luke’s girlfriend), and when Elena suffers her own tragedy, both Walter and Elena’s mother (Sonia Braga) have to offer up inappropriate and/or tone-deaf responses, in order to baldly goose the dramatic stakes. (The latter weighs in via Skype, advising Elena, apropos of nothing, to get highlights for her hair.) This is kind of a shame, just because it feels like a punt — the trading in of a messier, more interesting reality for something less honestly derived from character, and more about unnatural catharsis.
“Emoticon” isn’t bad, but in the end it just doesn’t reach down deep enough for something gritty and true. Its title — which on the surface seems like an odd fit — relates to Elena’s putative research into teens’ use of social media, and how it shapes their relationships, but De Paolis, who has a generally appealing on-screen presence, doesn’t dig deep enough into her character’s intellectual endeavors. When it’s kicking around on the fringe, “Emoticon” flirts with some interesting things to say about the shifting nature of identity and how it’s tethered to other groups, and even fertility. Too bad that the movie doesn’t bound off into the weeds, but instead stays too close to the familiar, carved garden path.
NOTE: For more information, visit www.EmoticonTheMovie.com.
Written by: Brent Simon