A parents night out turns into a nightmare for their kids in this taut, psycho-sitter thriller.
There are more worries that come with parenting than there’s space here to list, but one worth mentioning involves babysitters. A child is precious, so the care for that child must be handed to someone whose trust is irrefutable. A trustworthy sitter is a valuable commodity and can mean a stress-free (and well-deserved) night out for parents. A new sitter, though, is a different story. A new sitter invites questions, worries, and doubts until they can prove their worth. These are the sorts of doubts are at the center of Emelie, an effective thriller that taps into the fears of parents and children about strange sitters.
Dan and Joyce Thompson (Chris Beetem and Susan Pourfar) plan a night out without their three kids to celebrate their wedding anniversary. When their usual sitter can’t make it, they hire her friend, Anna. At first, Anna is everything the kids could want in a sitter because she lets them do whatever they please. But as the night progresses, Anna’s behavior grows darker. 11-year-old Jacob (Joshua Rush) learns this mysterious new sitter’s name isn’t actually Anna, but rather Emelie (Sarah Bolger). Once Emelie’s identity is compromised, her behavior grows even darker.
After a harrowing opening (the film’s one true, and earned, jump scare moment) that allows Emelie to assume the role of Anna, first-time feature writer/director Michael Thelin settles into an unsurprising, if not mostly predictable, first-act groove. He presents the serenity of suburbia to establish the juxtaposed backdrop of the impending terror. He portrays the chaos found in a house where parents scramble to get ready so they don’t miss their reservation while trying to wrangle their three young ones. While driving to the restaurant, natural parental worrying settles in but ultimately passes. As for that sitter, she curries favor with kids immediately by allowing them total freedom. This is where it gets interesting.
For the two younger kids it’s all about junk food and playtime, but for Jacob, Emelie is both attractive and a temporary mother-figure he wants to please. Emelie senses both of these things and exploits the former when, in a stunning scene, she asks Jacob to fetch her a tampon…while she’s on the toilet and he’s in the bathroom with her. This is the first in a collection of lapel-grabbing scenes that move the story away from that familiar groove while avoiding expected psycho-sitter moments.
Thelin draws Emelie as wickedly subversive and passive-aggressive in her cruelty to the children. Rather than overtly frighten them or physically abuse them, Emelie instead exposes them to things that are varying degrees of traumatic, including putting one child’s pet hamster into the tank of another child’s pet snake. Emelie is rich with other similar moments, which aren’t so much scary as they are discomforting.
Hampering the film, however, is the inclusion of a mysterious man spying on the parents while Emelie is watching the children, which stops the film in its tracks every time Thelin focuses on this subplot. Seeing the parents enjoying themselves while their children are going through this traumatic night is unnecessary; the addition of the spy tries to force some greater sense of doom on the evening and it never quite works.
The other big detriment to Emelie is its lack of momentum. While it fits the traditional three-act structure, Emelie never turns up the intensity. The film is essentially a collection of moments that never build up to something greater, but it’s a solid B-movie that Thelin doesn’t try to oversell. He makes some interesting creative choices that mostly work, like his creation of the title character and (especially) the decision to avoid turning the story into a straight cat-and-mouser. This is a taut thriller that finds its greatest effectiveness in its discomforting moments.