Emoticon ;): Film Review

This modest debut feature falls short of its goals but has some quietly effective moments nonetheless.

Livia De Paolis' debut feature concerns the interpersonal crises of a modern, non-nuclear family.

Livia De Paolis’s too cutely titled debut feature wears its themes a little too baldly on its sleeve, but this modest effort about a non-nuclear family dealing with various interpersonal crises boasts some genuinely effective, understated moments. Recently showcased as the opening night film of the GenArts Film Festival, Emoticon ;) should find some traction on the festival circuit while serving as a calling card for its multi-hyphenate filmmaker/star.

Di Paolis plays the central role of Elena, a 33-year-old graduate student working on a thesis about “modern means of communication”-- hence the electronic media-derived title. Elena is romantically involved with a much older man, Walter (playwright/actor Michael Cristofer, lately of TV’s Smash), who has two adopted teenage children he’s raising alone since his ex-wife (Christine Ebersole) is too consumed with her high-class lifestyle.

Although the kids are initially suspicious of Elena, who’s but the latest in a string of their father’s younger girlfriends, they eventually warm up to her after they begin struggling with personal issues. Luke (Miles Chandler) has unprotected sex with his girlfriend, resulting in a pregnancy scare, while the Hispanic Mandy (Diane Guerrero) suddenly finds herself interested in her ethnic heritage and announces that she wants to go to Mexico to meet her birth parents.

Elena, meanwhile, has a crisis of her own. She unexpectedly becomes pregnant and much to her surprise realizes that she wants to keep the baby. This naturally doesn’t sit too well with Walter, who has no interest in becoming a parent again. When she later loses the baby, neither Walter nor her mother (Sonia Braga) display much sympathy, with the latter advising her that she’ll feel better by getting highlights in her hair.

While the screenplay by De Paolis and Sarah Nerboso falters in its melodramatic plot elements, its incisive characterizations and well-drawn smaller moments provide some compensation. Such scenes as when Elena accompanies a desperate Luke to a pharmacy to get his girlfriend a morning-after pill and Mandy begs her indifferent mother to take her are beautifully rendered, while the essentially decent Walter rises above the usual stereotype of the boorish older man in the midst of a midlife crisis.

Ironically, it’s De Paolis’ Elena who registers as the least interesting, mostly reactive character despite the actress’ engaging performance and the efforts to depict her emotional struggles via a series of scenes in which she’s seen interacting with her thesis advisor (Carol Kane).

Ultimately the film feels as reductive as the graphic that provides its title, failing to delve deeply enough into the emotionally complex issues it seeks to explore.

GenArts Film Festival (Tandem Pictures)

Cast: Michael Cristofer, Livia De Paolis, Diane Guerrero, Miles Chandler, Carol Kane, Sonia Braga

Director: Livia De Paolis

Screenwriters: Livia De Paolis, Sarah Nerboso

Producers: Livia de Paolis, Danelle Eliav, Schuyler Weiss

Executive producer: Hugh Broder

Director of photographer: Alex Disenhof

Editor: Vanessa Abbott

Costume designer: Sne Patel

Composer: Lindsay Marcus

Not rated, 79 min