Mental illness bedevils an initially uncomplicated love story in “Em,” Tony Barbieri’s low-key, well observed third feature. Notable for the compelling screen debut of leading lady Stef Willen, this winner of the Grand Prize at last year’s Seattle Film Festival deserves further fest exposure at home and abroad, and confirms the talent Barbieri displayed in his first two features. But lack of name talent and the restrained dramatic approach make this a commercial challenge.
Even more than his 1998 Sundance entry “One,” and “The Magic of Marciano” two years later, “Em” bears the mark of a director determined and able to make hand-tooled films to his own specifications.
Deftly filmed opening has agreeable, open-faced Josh (Nathan Wetherington) making eye contact with the striking Amanda (Willen) at San Francisco Airport baggage claim. In no time, they’re in the sack, then rating favorite literature, then moving in together. Selecting scenes that could be considered either precise or random, Barbieri refuses to provide establishing information or any sense of the passage of time.
Josh adores the mostly quiet, compliant Em (as he calls her) from the start and continues to; it’s as if he’s been waiting all his life for this woman and now considers his life complete. But after exhibiting mild hints of distraction, Em suddenly lands in hospital, and Josh is informed she’s got a bipolar condition heretofore resistant to medical treatment.
Pic’s fundamental problem is that viewers are likely to be more curious to know more about Em’s situation and history than is Josh; for dramatic purposes, he’s a far too passive, accepting character, the sort of man whose constant supportive words, along the lines of, “We’ll get through this,” and, “There’s nothing wrong with you,” soon sound like hollow, uncomprehending blather.
Told by a shrink that they need to separate for Em’s own good, Josh never asks her what she feels about it or anything about her past, and evinces no interest in researching her disease. Josh’s willful naivete and inaction, along with his difficulty in understanding that love may not be enough in this case, provide a growing source of frustration.
An odd development at the midway point, along with the San Francisco setting, forces comparison to that classic of obsessive love, “Vertigo,” although the association goes nowhere. “Em” retains its pull through the second half, but there is a certain dramatic withering that corresponds to the narrative trajectory but nonetheless inflates the sense of emotional inertia.
Sturdily built, with bold features and mesmerizing blue eyes, Willen is a real find as Em; she owns the screen when she’s on it. As Josh, who gradually moves from low-paid bookshop clerk to modest white-collar worker, Wetherington starts off nicely but is soon hobbled by the character’s incredulousness and immaturity.
The pic features a spare, evocative score by Harry Gregson-Williams, the “Shrek” composer who also co-produced and partly funded this film.