Livia De Paolis and Michael Cristofer in Emoticon ;). Photo courtesy of Livia De Paolis/Indican Pictures.

Livia De Paolis and Michael Cristofer in Emoticon;). Photo courtesy of Livia De Paolis/Indican Pictures.

Early in Livia De Paolis’ debut film, Emoticon;), a father tells his teenage son “I want you to know we’re having a family dinner. I want to tell you instead of e-mailing you.” That pretty much sums up the theme of this honest and heartfelt exploration of relationships. You might ask yourself is the longing for human connection even a reasonable ambition to hold in today’s plugged-in world? At least in this director’s universe, it is.

First off, the nuclear family De Paolis has chosen to explore is a little off-kilter, so communication in any form is a mixed blessing. Elena (played by De Paolis) is a 33-year-old graduate student in anthropology from Italy, involved with Walter (Michael Cristofer), a 64-year-old father of two teenage children, Luke (Miles Chandler) and Amanda (Diane Guerrero). They are living in Manhattan with him as their mother (Christine Ebersole) is a bit of a career globetrotter. If the two rather typically sullen and self-involved young people don’t look like siblings, it’s because they’re adopted — Luke looking like a healthy, corn-fed Midwesterner and Amanda, according to one of her girlfriends, like a Mayan princess.

When Elena first meets the two teenagers, they are about as friendly and elusive to dad’s new girlfriend as a pair of groundhogs on a snowbound February day. When she’s out of earshot, Amanda says to her brother, “Gross, is she like 30?” Even if anyone over 25 may seem over the hill of coolness to these two, in this case, the alluring young stranger is over 30 years younger than their father, so that’s two strikes against her.

Elena does her tentative best to draw them out, with such sincerity and tenderness that we only wish she wouldn’t try so hard. When she confesses how she finds it interesting how they communicate through their electronics, for example, Amanda snaps back, “That’s because you’re old.”

In the press notes De Paolis emphasized how she wanted to make a movie that was “honest and transparent,” that she wanted it to be “soft-spoken.” She has achieved that truthfulness for the most part, but there are moments where the soft-spoken intimacy she has worked so hard to achieve as a director and star could benefit from a little more heightened sense of confrontation. When she expresses an almost instant appreciation of Luke’s songwriting, it feels premature, somehow — too cozy to fit the contempt he felt earlier for her. Even dad is a little surprised at how quickly these two have come to an understanding.

It’s a brave and risky business to take on the pivotal leading role as well as of the director, but De Paolis turns in a competent enough portrayal, vacillating between her convictions that she can repair the rifts in this family and her own vulnerability with an older lover. She has an attractive on-screen presence, but there’s a hesitation in her actions that makes it difficult at times to decipher whether it’s the actress or the character caught in the crossfire of her own indecisions.

Perhaps the wisest choice De Paolis made was in the casting of Michael Cristofer as Walter, her leading man. The age difference between the two is a factor in their on-screen relationship, but Cristofer has an energy that befits a younger performer and the script can’t be written off as simply another May to September romance. A Pulitzer-prize-winning playwright for his script Shadow Box, he is a familiar presence on stage and television as well. He’s also a complex and magnetic actor who manages to bring to life every scene he’s given to play, however central or peripheral to the story. There’s a definite chemistry at work between the two performers, and he definitely “ups the ante” whenever they are attempting to connect with one another. Without giving away the finer points of the plot, the film succeeds most when they must come to a final resolution of their relationship with one another.

If the direction and the storyline succeed for the most part, it is in the script where De Paolis and her writing partner Sarah Nerboso shine brightest. The director admits to 19 rewrites in all, and it shows. The only aspect that seems glaringly out of place is the title itself — Emoticon;). And what about that end punctuation? Why should an otherwise intelligent screenplay have to send up such a pretentious red signal?

As for the dialogue, it sparkles whether coming from the mouths of teenagers or their elders and it serves as a tool, whether via text-messaging or face to face interaction, to push the characters closer or further apart from one another. When Elena is sharing face time with her Rome-based mother (a surprisingly one-note portrayal by Sônia Braga) on her laptop, mama snaps back that her daughter should “wax [her] eyebrows before calling [her] again.” When Walter’s daughter, Amanda, decides to hang out with Sadie, a school chum from the Dominican Republic, Sadie (played pitch-perfectly by Sydney Morton) is quick to challenge her Latin-appearing friend: “We’re the only brown girls here, so we better stick together.” The remark stuns Amanda. Who is she really? It’s a revelatory moment for this Upper East Side teen. Later, Sadie will taunt her with: “You wanna go through your whole life dressed like a white girl?” It’s heartwarming to see Amanda trying on a new identity like a new outfit.

The fictional Amanda is not the only one doing an identity check. The director has admitted to a former relationship with an older man and his children in the press notes and this familiarity with young people has paid off, both in the casting and the script development. Miles Chandler as Luke will also face his own identity crisis. He hides behind his iPhone until Jackie (Allie Gallerani), the sexy, more experienced schoolmate, hunts him down, proving social media networking can only keep the fireworks at bay for so long. Sex is in the cards for the virginal Luke, and it’s the intuitively wise Elena who bails him out by a trip to the pharmacy for morning-after pills for the all-too-willing Jackie. “How do you know if a girl’s your girlfriend?” he asks, and it’s an ingenuous, beautifully honest moment from an actor who’s not afraid to reveal the child underneath his fledgling manhood.

Diane Guerrero’s Amanda is just as carefully written. She’s a stunningly, pretty young performer, most appealing as she begins to trust Elena’s attentions. At one point, she says to the woman, “I’ll see you around, but virtually.” Maybe it’s not exactly what Elena wanted to hear but the ice has been broken, and perhaps any kind of communication is better than none at all.

The biggest stand-out in the supporting cast is Carol Kane, a refreshing choice for Elena’s Ph.D advisor. Audiences will recognize her as Andy Kaufman’s wife in the TV series Taxi, still others for her Allison Portchnik in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. She also garnered an Oscar nomination for Best Actress for Hester Street (1975). Here, she wears her character like an old reliable schmata or housecoat. Her younger kookier self has matured into a brassy, lovable eccentric. She’s confrontational in the best sense. Finding it difficult to communicate with Elena, she’s not one to mince words. “You’re in anthropology, the study of humanity and people; why do you want to study humanity?!” Her character is a well-placed foil to make Elena think a little deeper about her future.

Christine Ebersole hits just the right note in a rare lunch date with Amanda. She’s all sunshine and charm until her daughter confesses she wants to move back in with her. Then we see how empty her guise as a lovely but absent mother really is.

The care that De Paolis has taken in her casting choices to create a rich acting ensemble is evident — we can’t help wanting more of Kane and Ebersole, and even Braga’s iPhone image, and that’s always a good sign. So how did this first time director do it?

“It takes a bit of a miracle to make a movie and definitely a few guardian angels,” De Paolis was quoted as saying. Even though she grew up in Rome, where her parents ran a film studio and she survived several years of theatre training with the Labyrinth Theater Company and the downtown experimental theater scene, an obvious uphill effort went into assembling all the nuts and bolts for a full-length feature.

Her guardian angels are all relatively young but talented, and in some cases, well-seasoned artisans. The cinematography of Alex Disenhof shows a sure hand, whether shooting skateboarding at Grant’s Tomb or capturing sunsets in the Yucatán Peninsula. The same certain touch is in Vanessa Abbott’s editing and composer Lindsay Marcus’ fluid, contemporary sounds.

The contemporary film world can always use another director not afraid to tackle the big issues of the day — yes, there’s the environment, and gun control and wars of all sizes — but isn’t it possible that how we, as human beings, manage to communicate with one another in this technology-infused world could be the most important issue of all? That in itself is worth the ticket and time to add this to your wish list.

Rating: 3+ out of 4 stars

Emoticon;) opened on May 30 in New York and Los Angeles, followed by a limited theatrical release. The film has a running time of 79 minutes.

Emoticon trailer final from Livia De Paolis on Vimeo.

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