Short Takes: Emelie

(Michael Thelin, U.S., 2015)

Michael Thelin’s perversely effective debut feature is a little thriller that pokes and prods at the fears of young parents. Bougie Buffalo couple Joyce and Dan (Susan Pourfar and Chris Beetem) are heading out for a fancy dinner to celebrate their wedding anniversary, and need a babysitter to watch their three children: Jacob (Joshua Rush), Sally (Carly Adams), and Christopher (Thomas Bair). Their usual sitter is busy, so they entrust their tots to “Anna” (Sarah Bolger), who is, of course, not what she seems.

Played with a doe-eyed, laid-back sociopathy by Bolger, Anna chips away at the kids’ cocoon of innocence. Eleven-year-old Jacob is the eldest, and Anna befuddles his pre-adolescent hormones by changing a tampon in front of him. She encourages Christopher, the toddler, to feed the family gerbil to Jacob’s pet python, rationally stating that “everyone dies at some point.” Then she sits them down for “movie night,” which features a viewing of an old VHS tape of mom and dad expressing their love through grunting.

Thelin builds these traumas slowly, and exploits the natural and playful performances of the kids for maximum queasiness. The big reveal of Anna’s insanity is predictable, but Bolger’s performance is not. With her easy smile and purring voice, she has the intense, hypnotic charisma of a born cult leader, ready to disillusion the youth of the world.