The attempted winking nature of Livia De Paolis’ directorial debut—literally, since the official title of Emoticon ;) does actually include a face made out of misplaced punctuation—isn’t meant to be taken to heart. Though it’s ostensibly a hyper-contemporary examination of how modern people communicate with and relate to each other (mainly via social media), De Paolis’ film is actually a relatively timeless tale about the nature of families, fitting in, and finding love in unexpected places. It doesn’t really need all that texting and Facebook chatter, but it still features enough typing and tapping to irritate even the most tech-addicted viewer.
De Paolis wrote the script alongside fellow feature newbie Sarah Nerboso, and she also stars as the mostly charming but continually confused Elena, a graduate student studying “graphic forms of communication.” Her area of study is as vague as it sounds; even if Elena knows what she wants her work to involve, she has no clue what direction it should go in, and her understanding of emoticons as “sideways happy faces” isn’t doing her any favors.
Elena’s personal life is similarly plagued by her search for connection, and although she seems happy with her much-older boyfriend Walter (Michael Cristofer), that changes when she meets his plugged-in teenage son and daughter. De Paolis smartly roots her film in understandable, though slightly clichéd, family dramas and traumas, especially as they apply to the introduction of a new maternal figure in a household that isn’t necessarily receptive. But her story strays from that idea too often to make it stick.
Elena’s initial attempts at bonding with the kids are either stilted or misguided, as she tries to talk about her work with Amanda (Diane Guerrero, who plays “bored teenager” with grace and humor) before eventually smoking a joint with an already-stoned Luke (Miles Chandler). The awkwardness De Paolis exhibits while trying to get the kids to like her may be overly realistic. It’s hard to tell whether her rigid onscreen persona is due to the role, or her inability to settle into the demands of leading a film.
De Paolis’ understanding of teen communication is certainly better than Elena’s, and the first half of the film, which is mainly preoccupied with portraying the kids’ life, is better for it. Although not all of the supposedly teen cast look like actual teenagers, they all act and talk like them, and when the film zooms in on Luke and Amanda, it’s at its best. De Paolis is especially good at plastering the screen with the maddening and mercurial nature of her youngest subjects, and her teen characters are all believably hormonal and obsessive.
Keeping the focus on the teens also helps the film portray technology’s influence, simply because the younger set is so believably inoculated to its prevalence. For both Luke and Amanda, fundamental intrusions on privacy are totally normal. (Ten years ago, it was reasonable to assume that people’s moves weren’t all tracked and recorded online, but today’s kids barely remember that.)
As the film attempts to move its focus back toward Elena and her own problems, however, Emoticon ;) loses the momentum it picked up when the kids were driving the action. The adult romance never sticks, and it seems prophetic that Elena’s relationship with Walter’s teen children is so much more interesting and compelling, even from its earliest appearances.
Despite its slim 79-minute runtime, Emoticon ;) is crammed with a startling number of subplots, which mostly struggle to address some of the large issues they present and subsequently abandon. Although Emoticon ;) could easily stick to its base—communication issues between generations, the face of the modern family, teen angst of every stripe—De Paolis also throws age differences, race conflicts, class issues, sexual maturation, ticking biological clocks, and reproductive rights into the stew, and nothing comes out feeling complete or appropriately addressed.
De Paolis’ feature debut (after her 2013 short thriller “Awestruck”) is relatively well put-together, but still employs a few tricks that should have been cut. Amateurish ironies round out Elena’s thin character (she’s a student who doesn’t know what she wants to study, a woman who can’t comprehend her maternal desires, and a lover who isn’t quite comfortable with emotions), and the film often skips over potentially enriching scenes, instead trying to convey drama and energy with slow motion and montages.
Although Elena’s graduate work eventually finds its footing in both the digital world and the emotional one, Emoticon ;) never does. For all the film’s reliance on using technology to expose its characters and drive its narrative, its most essential interactions are in person, and involve the old-fashioned type of sharing. De Paolis’ interest in mapping out the digital world and the concept of sharing through it implies that she feels positive about such modern trappings—technology isn’t a hindrance to Elena or the kids, and her academic interest in it comes without fear or prejudice—but the fact that the most rewarding parts of the film take place far away from a phone or computer screen doesn’t appear to be part of De Paolis’ original messaging. Instead, that indicates what works about Emoticon ;), from De Paolis’ keen understanding of kids to the natural performances by Guerrero and Chandler. And it’s why a film about digital expression works best when it’s focused on actual human interactions.