Cory Choy’s Esme, My Love opens with a familiar scene—a bored tweener in the back seat of a car driven by a parent who is far more enthusiastic about their upcoming activity (in this case, camping in the woods on the grandparent’s old property)—than is said child. And yet there’s something off from the start, cueing us in that we shouldn’t necessarily settle for the most obvious interpretation of whatever seems to be happening at the moment.
The child in question, Esme (Audrey Grace Marshall), is apparently suffering from an illness for which her mother Hannah (Stacey Weckstein) thinks time spent in the fresh air would be beneficial. Esme seems to be strong and healthy, however, raising suspicions that Hannah might be suffering from Munchausen by Proxy Syndrome. And while we’re on the topic of mysteries: who is this Emily Hannah keeps referring to, and why is she bringing her up on this trip all of a sudden?
The fact that Hannah keeps drifting away from shared reality, has a tendency to over-react to fairly ordinary behaviors by Esme, and has recurrent and disturbing visions increase our doubts that she’s going to be a reliable witness, let alone a responsible caretaker of a dependent child. Esme, for her part, keeps calling Hannah by her first name, raising the question of whether they really are mother and daughter at all.
After one night camping rough, Hannah and Esme move into the grandparents’ abandoned house, whose dirt basement Hannah proclaims “a good spot for digging.” When Esme turns up an old milk bottle cap Hannah takes it as a sign that “my past is connecting with us” and declares that it means “We’re not really alone.” Esme is properly creeped out both by Hannah’s speech and her attempt to treat it (after the fact) as a joke, but she has no practical choice but to make the best of the situation. Things don’t improve when Hannah decides they should eat a jar of canned peaches of unknown vintage, making them both predictably sick.
The food poisoning incident introduces an interesting wrinkle—as things start to get weirder and weirder, it’s not clear if what we’re seeing is meant to be real or if it’s all a hallucination brought on by indigestion, as Ebenezer Scrooge accused the ghost of Jacob Marley* of being. For a third possibility, could it be that Hannah and Esme have wandered into some kind of haunted forest that warps their perceptions and/or is taking over their minds? In the case of this film, the right answer may be the dreaded “All of the above.”
Esme, My Love is long on atmosphere and ambiguity, its shifting moods bolstered by the cinematography of Fletcher Wolfe and the music of Stephanie Griffin and Charlotte Littlehales. Choy puts the classic horror tropes to good use in ways that feel both fresh and appropriate, and Marshall and Weckstein have good chemistry together, the latter a necessicity since this is essentially a two-hander.
When it comes to story, Esme, My Love is weaker—information is doled out at an odd pace, and sometimes symbols are a bit too obvious—but that’s less of a problem than it might be because Hollywood-style invisible storytelling is not really the point. In any case, Esme, My Love is a strong directorial debut in which Choy demonstrates a mastery of the cinematic art form that would put many more experienced directors to shame. | Sarah Boslaugh
*”…you may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato…” and so on and so forth.
Esme My Love is available on Blue-ray, DVD, and VOD beginning June 2.