Babysitting is a strange job. It’s become a perfectly normal job for teenagers; it’s a cornerstone of the high school job market, but it’s still a strange job. An adult is trusting a child to look after a smaller child. Their child. The most valuable thing in their life is entrusted to someone who is, in some cases, a complete stranger. That takes an enormous amount of trust. What happens when you trust the wrong person? What happens when you trust Emelie?
Michael Thelin’s debut feature, Emelie, examines every parent’s worst nightmare. The Thompsons (Chris Beetem and Susan Pourfar) are preparing to celebrate their anniversary when Maggie, their usual sitter, cancels on them. She gives them the number of her friend Anna (Sarah Bolger, Once Upon a Time), who agrees to sub in. She meets the three children – Jacob (Joshua Rush), a moody pre-teen, and his younger siblings Sally and Christopher (Carly Adams and Thomas Bair). After a quick reminder not to let the children in the garage where the prized vintage car is parked, the Thompsons head out living Anna with the children.
At first, the kids are thrilled with Anna’s laid back babysitting style. But Jacob soon starts to suspect that there’s something not quite right with Anna, not exactly sinister, just off. At least at first. As the night progresses, Jacob uncovers more and more about whom Anna really is and what her plans really are.
It would have been easy for Emelie to devolve into a slasher with the twist of the babysitter playing the role of the slasher. But Emelie has something most horror films don’t: restraint. Rich Herbeck’s debut script plays it slow, keeping Anna’s motives vague and letting things escalate slowly, as Jacob discovers that Anna isn’t who she says she is, her name isn’t even Anna, it’s Emelie. The childrens’ performances are all impressively strong. Rush does impressive work as Jacob, transforming from whiny child to man of the house over the course of the night. But the real highlight here is Sarah Bolger, whose performance as Emelie is genuinely unsettling, striking a difficult balance between a disarming charm that makes her connection with the children believable, and an eerie purpose that suggests they are truly unsafe.
Emelie runs a brisk 80 minutes, and for the first 50 it feels like Thelin has really tapped into an icy vein of unplumbed domestic horror. Unfortunately, Emelie’s third act undoes quite a bit of the film’s tension, devolving into more standard horror fair. After nearly an hour of ratcheting up the stakes, Thelin suddenly starts pumping the breaks. When Emelie’s plan begins to spiral out of control, the film fails to humanize her in a way that keeps her threatening. The film also insists on giving Emelie a strange accomplice who helps her enact her plan. He’s an underdeveloped boogeyman who feels unnecessary and fails to expand the scope of the story in any real way.
Technical credits are strong all around. Phil Mossman’s score is sufficiently unsettling and Luca Del Puppo’s cinematography is claustrophobic and tense. A few moments of the film’s finale show the constraints of the tight budget, further illustrating why the film should have kept itself in check, but overall the film looks and sounds strong.
Verdict: 3 out of 5
Emelie is two thirds of a great film. It taps into some real deep fears and unfortunately fails to take them far enough to be really shocking. Still, Sarah Bolger’s performance is chilling and absolutely worth seeing. Emelie isn’t quite the indie horror masterpiece it could have been, but it has the power genuinely unsettle, and is sure to make most parents’ hearts skip a beat.