By Pete Barell
Arts and Entertainment Editor
Livia De Paulis abides by the DIY ethic. She not only stars in her debut feature, “Emoticon,” but she directed it, co-wrote it and produced it, too. This approach can have several results — the film can feel thin, since the creative core has many things to worry about. It can also appear whole, since that same force has an unequaled dominance on it. “Emoticon” falls somewhere somewhere neatly in the middle of that spectrum.
The film has a divided focus, on the verge of feeling like an ensemble piece. The asserted center of the story is Elena (De Paulis), a 30-something aspiring anthropologist, who is sorting out her PhD thesis about modern communication. Her boyfriend Walter (playwright Michael Christofer), thirty years her senior, has two adopted children, both in the most uncomfortable of teen years — Mandy ( Diane Guerrero) and Luke (Miles Chandler) — and with a slew of issues in their own right.
It is interesting to see such a varied family construct, and the adoption dynamic serves a way to further the personal identity issues of Walter’s children. Mandy is Hispanic, but is disconnected from her roots living in an upper-class, mostly white neighborhood. Luke navigates his coming-of-age with many questions about manhood. Those questions are somewhat answered by Elena, whose role in their house grows from seemingly ostracized (dad is dating another young girl?!) to confidant, since Walter is fairly absent from their lives. The father-children disengagement is further solidified by their referring to him by his first name, as if he’s just a very hospital hotel owner.
The relationship between Luke and Elena is refreshing — how often do we see a platonic friendship between a 30-year-old woman and a teenager? She helps him out of a tight spot when he gets his new girlfriend pregnant, a somewhat convenient parallel to her own surprising pregnancy. Some scenes here seem a little unbelievable — Luke doesn’t beat around the bush at all when he tells Elena about his emerging sex-life, and this feels forced. At the same time, Mandy falls in with a group of people who share a similar heritage, and begins to question her pampered upbringing. She goes so far as meeting with her always-traveling mother, one of the more tense and revealing scenes of the film. All three characters have interweaving story-arcs, which is a strength.
“Emoticon” is openly thematic, which is moderately campy. What happens to identity in the digital age? How is communication effected? Do we really experience the world anymore?Elena is something of an observer to the teenage world exploding around her. She’s the Nick Carroway to Jay Gatsby — fairly dull on her own, but her world is excited by the lives of others. The character deserves to be more of an active player in the story, but that notion is not achieved.
Technology is shown full-frontal: laptops, iPhones, iPads, text messages and everything else your grandmother can’t figure out how to use. It might just be me, but it’s a bit cringe-worthy to see a teenager post a nasty message on a Facebook wall in a film. There’s something about the digital age that seems hard to portray without pointing out the obvious flaws and lack of focus to the real world it causes in people, to the point that it seems overdone. Maybe it’s because we’re so used to this technology that it has become mundane, and therefore a bore on screen. The attempt, though, is bold, if only for its honesty.
“Emoticon” attempts to stake a claim on an intellectual level, prying at social and racial issues, such as integration and personal identify, by making using of a varied cast.It is this honest attempt to actually say something, despite feeling packed like a sardine-box, that gives the film and De Paulis’ hard work a pass in my book. The film has a limited theatrical release on May 30 at Cinema Village in New York City.