If you were to read the description for Emmy Award-winning sound mixer Cory Choy's narrative feature directing debut Esme, My Love it's likely that you'd find the film more than a little maddening.
Perhaps, that's the point.
"When Hannah notices the symptoms of a terminal and painful illness in her aloof daughter, Esme, she decides to take her on a trip to their abandoned family farm in a desperate attempt to connect before they have to say goodbye," it reads as if we're about experience some low-key poignant family drama and nothing else.
Esme, My Love is something else.
Esme, My Love is a dark and unflinching meditation on the mother/daughter relationship that weaves of stark tapestry of psychological thrills and mystical realism that practically washes over and dares you to rise to the surface. Esme, My Love is a two-character film - Hannah (Stacey Weckstein), a complicated mother whose presence feels uncertain from early on, and Esme (Audrey Grace Marshall), the aloof young daughter whose purported illness finds her subjected to a not so willing wilderness adventure with her frequently distant and distracted mother.
To call Esme, My Love an ambiguous film would be an understatement. As co-written by Laura Allen with Choy, this is a film that weaves and bobs, tosses and turns its way through the intricacies of familial relationships and generational traumas like loss and grief. Esme, My Love simply never just tells its story. It's an approach that will lose some yet will gain the admiration of others who will demand more than one viewing to piece together the fractured shards of these complicated lives.
Esme, My Love is a difficult to understand film that is impossible to ignore. Having snagged at least 15 awards on the indie fest circuit, the film soars as a reflective, internal exploration of all the ways that life can traumatize us and all the ways that we work to survive it.
In such an intimate film, chemistry is essential and it is in abundance between Weckstein and Marshall as a mother and daughter whose relationship vacillates between fiercely protective and overwhelmingly anxiety-inducing. Esme, My Love spends very little time in the middle ground.
Esme, My Love soars on the strength of Audrey Grace Marshall's rather miraculous performance as Esme. Marshall, perhaps best known for her work on The Flight Attendant, occasionally gives off early Abigail Breslin vibes yet always makes this character her own and serves up a performance that deserves to be seen far and wide. If she wasn't already an up-and-comer, I'd be shouting from the rooftops that Hollywood needs to take notice.
But still, Hollywood needs to take notice.
Esme's emotional and physical journey is across the spectrum of life and Marshall's performance her is simply transformative. I simply couldn't stop watching her and even after the film's end found myself looking up The Flight Attendant. This is a wise, insightful performance that still manages to perfectly align alongside Weckstein's jarring, haunting performance as Hannah. Marshall and Weckstein together help Esme, My Love rise above its brief moments when it burns a tad too slowly and when the ambiguity occasionally threatens to derail the story's emotional resonance.
The original music by Charlotte Littlehales and Stephanie Griffin manages to find that space between the film's heightened drama and mystical realism and companions us across that chasm. Fletcher Wolfe's lensing is both uncommonly beautiful and observational in unsettling ways. Kyra Boselli's production design envelopes us and immerses us in both the internal and external worlds of this mother and daughter and all that they are experiencing.
Esme, My Love may not, in fact will not, please everyone because it demands attention to details of image, sound, dialogue, and unspoken cues. It's not a film for the casual moviegoer, yet the more disciplined cineaste will marvel at Choy's weaving together of sight and sound, atmosphere and character.
Everything matters. Everything.
Did I understand everything at film's end? I think I did, but I also think I didn't. That's the way filmmaking works sometimes and it's exhilarating to experience yet oh so rare. Esme, My Love is a meditation on family, love, loss, and magic that understands sometimes there are no answers that can be spoken and no resolutions that can be absolutely certain.
That's family. That's Esme, My Love.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic