I sincerely sympathize with Livia de Paolis’s struggles as a first-time filmmaker. With hardly any experience in filmmaking, she spent three years on the script with co-writer Sarah Nerboso (they wrote 19 drafts). Humbled by the process, de Paolis largely credited her small production team for making her debut a reality. Unfortunately, her inexperience and struggles are strikingly apparent in the messy, amateurish, and thin Emoticon ;) (Yes, the smiley is part of the title).
Set in New York City, the film centers on Elena (de Paolis), a 33 year-old doctoral student of anthropology. She is dating Walter (Michael Cristofer), a man nearly twice her age with two adopted children. Struggling to narrow down a dissertation topic (all she knows is that she’s interested in “modern ways of communication”), Elena is suddenly burdened by an unexpected pregnancy that complicates her relationship with Walter. Walter’s kids, Amanda (Diane Guerrero) and Luke (Miles Chandler) also figure prominently into the story as Amanda begins exploring her Latino roots after befriending another Latino named Sadie (Sydney Morton) and Luke has his first romantic and sexual experience with the gorgeous Jackie (Allie Gallerani).
Though each of these storylines are interconnected as Elena, Luke, and Amanda involve themselves in each other’s personal lives, that synopsis covers about all you need to know because the extent to which the film develops the plot is slight. With only a 79-minute run time, Emoticon ;) moves at such a fast pace that there is no time to sufficiently explore anyone or anything. A perfect example is when Amanda expresses to Walter her desire to go to Mexico. Walter initially says no, questioning her sudden interest; however, when Elena agrees to take her, Walter, in only a few seconds, makes a 180-degree shift and says, “Okay…We’ll all go.” and the scene soon ends. The entire plot progresses in a similarly rushed manner, briefly touching upon key plot points or moments of emotional intensity without giving them sufficient time to unravel in a way that’s meaningful to the audience.
The fast pace also means a lack of character development. In a movie that’s ostensibly about the effects of mediated interaction, several main characters are about as complex as a Twitter post. This might seem to fit with the movie at first blush, but limitations are only really visible when we have the real deal to compare them with. We never really get up to so much as a Facebook profile: Luke and Jackie are both white, private-school educated children, but other than that Luke is simply a naïve skater boy and Jackie a promiscuous blonde. Sadie contrasts as a hip, public-school educated Hispanic girl from the other side of town. The film never provides more than racial and social modifiers.
Even the way the film addresses digital communication, the unifying theme of the film, is feeble. Overstuffed and cursory examples of social media—Elena video chatting with her mother (Sonia Braga), Amanda reading a derogatory Facebook post about her (“Amanda Devins is so mean!”), Jackie recording and posting videos of Luke skateboarding, etc.—only meet the minimum requirements to certify that the film is “about social media.” Elena’s conclusion from her dissertation, which is presented at the film’s end as a point of emphasis, is also mediocre: she says that social media is still “a form of human connection. It’s just done in a different way…” In other words, neither Elena nor de Paolis have anything new or interesting to say on the topic.
Lindsay Marcus’s score is the only substantial element of emotional complexity. Reminiscent of achingly beautiful, urban-themed scores in films like those found in Lost in Translation and Her, the music—with tunes that range in tone from abject loneliness to dreamy euphoria—fits well with New York City’s backdrop. Where the story content falls short, especially in enhancing the emotional elements, the score is often able to fill in the gap, acting as a nice layer of polish over the film’s rough edges.
The tragic irony is that the film’s rushed and shallow qualities actually ring true with some aspects of social media culture. The film would have thus worked better as a satire or irreverent comedy had de Paolis not shown genuine interest in her characters. Her inability to flesh them out, however, makes the film fail as an affective drama. At one point, Elena theorizes, “[W]e’re all just trying to find ways to simplify our emotions so that we can share them.” The problem is that everything is simplified to ill effect and given only perfunctory treatments and observations.
Verdict: 1 out of 5
When asked about Emoticon ;)’s effect on her development as a film director, de Paolis replied, “I think Emoticon ;) as my film school. I love the movie but I see all the mistakes I made. I think I’ll do better next time.” The mistakes are indeed apparent and numerous, stymieing nearly everything the film tries to explore. Perhaps it’s simply the result of a beginner filmmaker; in which case, we hope that she learns from her mistakes and that her next film (if she chooses to make one) is much better than her first.