Film Review: Em

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Stumbling across a little gEm…

(Em, Tony Barbieri, USA, 92 mins.)

“Mental Illness doesn’t necessarily mean running through the streets naked.

It can take on a variety of subtle forms.”

These two lines of dialogue taken from the film not only reveal the theme of  Em but also encapsulate the message of its story and the architecture of its design quite beautifully.

Em follows a protagonist’s relationship with a woman who suffers from bi-polar disorder. It is not a film about bi-polar, nor mental illness in general – it revolves around the simplicity of a man’s love for one woman, and the innumerable complexities in which mental illness can affect the most simple of things, the tightest of relationships.

To achieve this Director Tony Barbieri makes the resolute decision to keep the canvas upon which the film is set as clear as possible, leaving the minutiae of the tiniest of quite unremarkable things to take on the most real, and powerful significance; a second’s lingering of the camera after the actor has walked out of scene, the dialogue remaining consistently checked in its realism, refusing to stray into melodrama and most importantly the most subtle and beautifully intricate performance of the two leads.

Nathan Wetherington plays the warm, but ultimately heartbroken boyfriend Josh with a lightness and delicacy that removes any pretensions of ‘cinema’ sheen convincingly and instantly – this is not a movie – it is film – his performance definitively mimetic of life not by means of straining every fibre to play each and every facet of a fictional character to his utmost ability, but rather through absorbing the qualities of this loving yet confused man and letting the emotion come to him, organically, naturally. His performance is unforced – he makes the character his own and then simply lets the occurrences play out – it feels too free to be restricted to something as dogmatic as a narrative; instead a snapshot, or rather many individual snapshots into this man’s existence: Josh in bed, walking through a bustling crowd, working at his office desk – all of these compositions are interspersed freely and naturally.

Stef Willen as the film’s namesake Amanda or ‘Em’ is similarly exceptional in her depiction of a woman suffering from advanced bi-polar. Spontaneous, articulate and artfully-measured in her characterization – she is both playful and vulnerable – meek and entirely loveable. The success of the chemistry between herself and Wetherington is instant within minutes of the film’s opening – the two sit together at ease, having met by chance at a café;

“Guess what I’m thinking” Amanda offers –

“I have no idea” Josh laughs back.

I’ll guess what you’re thinking”

The camerawork is managed constantly and artistically – at times hovering over and around the couple – a little too close perhaps, or blocking a part of the other’s face, suggesting the intimacy, or perhaps the claustrophobia of the couple’s relationship. Amanda’s illness is something Josh has no understanding of – not through ignorance or lack of intelligence – but as is sadly so often the case in reality with mental illness, simply through his inability to comprehend how someone he loves so much could possibly be affected so destructively from within; When Josh is confronted with the psychiatrist in whom Amanda has confided her deepest fears about her condition he is plunged into a world he has no knowledge or experience of, and so he is edgy – he fidgets and sits uneasily, overpowered by what he is hearing. During this scene the camera adapts this sense of nervousness and disorientation by the masterly direction of Barbieri. It shifts and is held uneasily as it focuses on Josh; the exchanges between himself and the specialist are shown from a POV – one seen from behind the other’s back – two men living in, mentally, two polar-opposite mindsets. As he then looks across to Amanda the camera focuses on defining her – blurring Josh, further removing him from this situation he can’t get a grasp on. Every shot is dictated by the mental emotion of the scene – not just lingering around possible, potential symbolism but placing the viewer there, in the room alongside the characters.

This film’s greatest triumphs are in its smallest details – not just the countless nuances and incidental expressions or few words of dialogue between the characters, but in the Director’s methodology of taking the decision to focus on that which might otherwise be considered mundane, but in this film only strengthens the vivid quality and similitude with those ‘real-life’ things.

In Mark Romanek’s One Hour Photo, protagonist Sy Parrish (Robin Williams) muses

“Most people don’t take snapshots of the little things; the used Band-Aid, the guy at the gas station, the wasp on the Jell-O. But these are the things that make up the true picture of our lives.”

In other words – it is these small, perhaps trivial details that make our lives real: ironically not ‘cinematic.’

In Em however the carefully-maintained story, which may have more commonly been filmed as a ‘short’, uses its 92 minutes running-time to let the characters breathe, but more importantly to make room for the inclusion of all these ‘little things’; an eleven-second panning shot of Em sat alone and quietly reserved at breakfast with a shaft of sunlight catching her face, a young child’s red balloon floating slowly up into a clouded sky, one of the in-patients at the psychiatric clinic yawning silently – it is the inclusion of all of these individual portraits that makes the setting of the film grow, filling the 92 minutes and making each one contribute a little more to the sense of reality.

The complexities of mental health conditions are unending, and often unfathomable.

The brilliance of this film is in acknowledging this and not trying to make something that de-constructs bi-polar disorder or attempts to re-create its effects – but rather in choosing to merely focus on a vignette of how it has come to affect two young lover’s lives.

It’s as simple as that.

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