Esme, My Love (2023)
Esme, My Love (2023)

Genre: Thriller Running Time: 1 hr. 45 min.

Release Date: March 12th, 2023 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Cory Choy Actors: Audrey Grace Marshall, Stacey Weckstein

 


 

“W

here are we going?” In an effort to get her daughter some fresh air, Hannah (Stacey Weckstein) drives little Esme (Audrey Grace Marshall) to their abandoned farm, where there’s a refreshing lake and forest. Esme hasn’t been before and she isn’t interested, nor does she feel like it would be beneficial. Nevertheless, Hannah is insistent, answering questions sparingly and with cryptic details. “I just want to go home.”

Something sinister is afoot, as flashbacks reveal shots of someone underwater, while another person drags a shovel and hefts a knife. And Hannah reiterates that she would never intentionally hurt her daughter – a comment that can’t stand alone without raising questions as to why it would need to be said. The cinematography feels as if a horror film, particularly on the drive, betraying Hannah’s nervousness; her glances toward the backseat where young Esme sleeps unaware; and her recklessness as the darkness allows her thoughts to wander, ignoring traffic. And once they arrive, though it’s daylight, the eerie quietness and solitude suggest that at any moment, something unanticipated and striking might occur. The camera also continues to capture unsettling imagery and angles; invasive close-ups on eyes, over-the-shoulder shots as if someone is spying from nearby, and inserts of a mirror’s unreal reflections or crackling fire or gloomy fog or aerial views of canopy disengagement – further reenforcing the twosome’s isolation.

Sound effects also disrupt the tranquility (though a soundtrack with gentle woodwinds, cheery vocals, and casual humming intermittently counters the mood), hinting at the bleakness and trauma lurking beneath the surface of an ostensibly peaceful, nature getaway. A mystery surrounding a relative named Emily soon pops up, adding to the aggravation of Hannah’s tight-lipped attitude; one would think that Esme would be mortified to enter a rundown basement, armed only with flashlights, with the goal of randomly digging into the earth. And her distrust should accelerate when Hannah feeds her rotten peaches. “I thought we had a little more time.”

While the technical elements are exceptional, from the camerawork to the editing to the color scheme to the framing, the numbing dearth of answers is routinely exasperating. Is this a film about a tragic past? A life getting cut short? Untamable guilt and regret manifesting themselves as demons? Complex bonding between mother and daughter? Or a tortured ghost returning for some vengeful haunting and otherworldly possession? If it were all building to ghoulish shocks, the journey might be rewarding; but by following a path of compounding ambiguities, the straightforward drama that emerges tends to be disappointing. If ultimate revelations – which are thoroughly obscure – don’t match the creeping dread, the result will be general indifference.

“Are we going home?” As the murky tone continues to switch back and forth, alternating serene vacationing with phantasmal jump-scares, it’s at least a testament to the premise that the events are interesting even with considerably limited settings, minimal dialogue, and just two actors (both of whom are excellent). The plot may not move forward with enough clues to keep audiences guessing (or, rather, for them to care to keep guessing), but it’s nevertheless handled with sincerity and a certain absorbing strangeness. Realism may be fleeting, especially surrounding Esme’s reactions to her distracted, enigmatic parent (and her braveness in the face of chilling encounters, chiefly inside a creepy old house), but the gentle descent into ominous unease – bordering on child abuse – is morbidly engaging (adults behaving irrationally and unexpectedly around powerless kids is a classic formula for thrills).

Unfortunately, “Esme, My Love” doesn’t fully embrace its potential for horror; even with standard sequences of supernatural frights, complete with nerve-jangling strings and percussion and an amplifying hysteria, it never truly goes off the rails. Had it done so, it might have been electrifying; instead, it’s only lightly disturbing and mostly confusing (or frustrating), with unhurried pacing (shots of environmental backgrounds and scenery are far too numerous), an unclear message, and a conspicuous repetition that indicates not quite enough material for a feature film. “Just tell me what you know!”

– Mike Massie

  • 5/10