Content warning: Emelie features scenes of extreme violence, psychological abuse, and sexual harassment against young children.
It's hard to get a bead on what Emelie is trying to do at first. The opening scene features a teenager being abducted into a car. Abduction horror is a thing and the scene, though really quiet, is well shot. Then we go to parents trying to get their kids ready for the new babysitter. The oldest boy is a handful, shown actually yanking one of his siblings off the bed over a phone dispute. An evil child film, perhaps? Then we pick up the new babysitter who seems nice but starts interacting with the children in strange ways. Evil babysitter films are a disturbing spin on home invasion horror, relying on the trust of a relative stranger having reign over your home and family while you're not there.
Before you can get your bearing and figure out just what kind of story Emelie is telling, the film declares psychological warfare on three children. The babysitter essentially sets the standard that, since the parents aren't home, they can do whatever they want. For her, it's having children pretend to murder each other or forcing a middle school boy to grab her a tampon while she sits on the toilet.
There's just a sense of cruelty that is far too much for a horror film led by children. Even if you excuse it as make believe or pretend, the child actors still have to live in these moments to portray them. Even viewing the young actors as professionals doesn't excuse them being asked to act out scenes of sexual harassment or violence against animals.
I'm not saying that children can't be in horror films, or that horror shouldn't be about children. I'm saying that the story being told shouldn't be told at the expense of putting young children in extreme situations. The work around in horror is usually editing and shooting a film so that the kids are present for the least amount of disturbing scenarios possible. Think of how often the young children in The Babadook or A Quiet Place are actually in the same scene as the terror. You see children in horror fully engaged when acting like children--playing, going to school, studying at home. They might be asked to run from something, say something weird, cry, or scream as loud as they can, but you very rarely see younger children there with the actual source of danger. The make believe element is always stressed and parents or sitters would be present on set to make sure the child is okay.
Emelie asks the child actors to act out a scene with a live pet hamster being fed to a snake or, again, a teenager simulating removing and inserting a new tampon. It's utterly unnecessary for the story being told. By the time the actual connecting thread of the plot is revealed, too much distracting and horrific things have happened to the children to make you care about the story. The focus pulls to the spectacle and extremity of the film itself and not the film's narrative. I was not concerned with justice or resolution; I was worried about what the child actors might have to do next.
I'm not naive. I teach music and theater. Emelie is not the only film to do this. My students have been sent on this kind of audition before. What I always suggest to the parents (for younger children) or the teens is to only agree to do what they're comfortable with. The amount of young filmmakers who see no harm in putting children into abusive, perverse, or potentially damaging situations for their films is mind-blowing. Emelie is a symptom, not the cause.
There's actually a good story at the core of Emelie. It could easily have been told without this series of scenes that just pushes too much on the children. The game with the camera, snack time, letting the kids paint on the walls, and the occasional odd comment or drop of the friendly face is enough without the rest. The babysitter's backstory told through a self-illustrated children's book, especially, is an interesting wrinkle in the narrative that shows how disturbing horror with children can be without putting children in needlessly stressful situations. It's just a shame that so much goes so far just to prove how dangerous the sitter is. The same effect could be achieved without pushing the burden on such young performers.
I don't see who the audience is for something like Emelie. I can only speak for myself in saying I regret watching it. It's disturbing, but not in the way anyone working on the film anticipated. It's a rare day I worry about the safety of the actors while watching a film. Emelie caused that reaction.
Emelie is currently streaming on Netflix.
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