80 min | Michael Thelin | (USA) | 2015
Emelie is a strikingly unsettling film for about the first fifty minutes. The plot is fairly simple: parents Dan and Joyce (Chris Beetem and Susan Pourfar) go out to celebrate their anniversary. Their usual babysitter has plans so they hire a girl they don’t know, albeit one vetted by friends. Unbeknownst to them, however, a couple has kidnapped the girl who was supposed to be babysitting for them and the mysterious Emelie arrives on their doorstep instead. Dan and Joyce go happily out to dinner leaving their three children Jake (11), Sally (9), and Christopher (4) in the tender care of Emelie.
Emelie proceeds to do things no parent would ever want a babysitter to do. The film is brilliant in its slow slide from the arguably “normal” toward the truly perverse. At first, Emelie just seems a vaguely anarchic force, letting the kids eat what they want, telling the two younger children, who want to play dress-up, to be creative in what they wear. She tells them that they don’t “have to be a boy or a girl. You can be anything you want to be. You just have to pretend.” Pushing the boundaries of imagination soon turns into destroying valuable things for costumes and painting on the walls. “Sometimes it’s okay to destroy things for fun,” Emelie says. Then it turns a bit more sinister: there’s a bathroom scene involving Emelie, who has her period, and the emergent adolescent, Jake (Joshua Rush). Then Emelie decides Jake’s pet python needs a treat. And then Emelie declares that it’s movie time: let’s just say no child should have to see what Jake, Sally, and Christopher see.
I loved many things about this first part of the film, including how it tests the line between encouraging kids’ creativity and urging them into what is clearly dangerous and destructive terrain. The film also makes the point that Emelie is tapping into a kind of natural anarchic, amoral force already within children, socialized away as they get older. It’s very telling, for instance, that the youngest, Christopher, laughs with glee during the python-feeding scene. It’s only later that he is able to empathize with his sobbing sister. His first, his “natural,” impulse is a disturbing kind of glee at seeing predatory behavior in all its glory.
The film also brilliantly makes Emelie’s motivations, in this first part of the film, completely obscure. We have no idea why she insinuated herself into this family: she seems to be doing it because she can, for enjoyment, for sheer curiosity.
The film tips pretty soon after this, however: Jake figures out something is deeply wrong and decides to do something about it. Emelie’s motives are disclosed. And in both realms—Jake fighting back, Emilie’s master plan—the plots become predictable, as well as straining credulity. Why Jake didn’t just go to a neighbor and call 911 is an overly distracting question in the later part of the film—and the reason he doesn’t, that he feels he needs to go back and save his siblings himself, feels contrived. The film also swerves into a kind of Home Alone narrative that feels out of joint with the first part of the film. And the Hand That Rocks the Cradle explanation for Emelie doesn’t, in my opinion, do justice to the intriguing character she is in the first part of the film.
These caveats aside, though, this film is absolutely worth watching, not least for the truly disturbing way it pushes the boundaries of the babysitter plot. I found myself thinking: “They’re not going to do that”—right before they do it! And Sarah Bolger did a fantastic job of playing Emelie: she oozed lack of affect, a complete dearth of conventional sentimentality, and amorality for much of the film. Her performance is a tour de force.