Based on the title alone, one would assume director Francesco Amato’s “18 Presents,” a terminal-illness-themed melodrama about a self-destructive young woman coping with the death of her mother, would place its emphasis on the special gifts the protagonist receives each year until adulthood. Not exactly. While this Italian-language weepie blessedly sidesteps schmaltz and saccharine, it disappointingly fails to capitalize on its promised premise. Neither emotional enough to pay proper tribute to the true story it captures, nor hokey enough to qualify as “so bad, it’s good,” this is a flaccid, failed attempt at heart-tugging poignancy.
Ultra-organized 40-year-old Elisa (Vittoria Puccini) seems to have it all. A good job running a temp agency. A decent-sized house in the Italian suburbs with her steady boyfriend (Edoardo Leo), who loves her dearly. Plus, she’s pregnant with a healthy baby girl. But on the same day that a slight problem arises in her third trimester, she’s dealt devastating news that she has an inoperable cancerous tumor and will not live to see her daughter grow up.
Before audiences can shed any tears, a time passage montage kicks in, starting with Dad holding Baby Anna for the first time in the hospital nursery and further charting Anna’s growth through her birthday party home videos. But as the years tick by, Anna grows resentful of the series of presents her mother has left her, which never fails to remind her of the tragedy that underscores every one of her happy days.
Fast-forward years later to Anna’s (Benedetta Porcaroli) 18th birthday. She’s matured into a rebellious, headstrong teenager, whose reckless actions almost get her swim teammate killed. A goth-like veneer and angsty attitude are her armor, cloaking a sad, hurt and lonely soul. Dad can no longer reason with her and is out of options for how to handle her temper. Anna’s overdue for a major reckoning. Upon running away from home, she’s accidentally hit by a car and when she awakens, she learns that the person who struck her is her very own mother. Not only that, but she’s traveled back in time to three months before she was born. Disguising her identity, Anna struggles to figure out what the universe wants her to learn about her mom, herself and the value of selflessness.
There are a series of low bars surmounted by Amato, along with screenwriters Massimo Gaudioso, Davide Lantieri and Alessio Vicenzotto. They do away with the “you lied to me” moment early on in the story, so when Anna’s Big Reveal to Elisa occurs, it’s shenanigan-free. While one suspects the filmmakers will maintain the mystery of Anna’s final gift until the end, it’s genuinely sweet how that aspect plays out.
There’s also attention paid to Anna’s wardrobe and makeup once she inevitably (and predictably) experiences a mood shift. They find some thematic resonance connecting parental hopes and dreams for their progeny to the younger generation’s hopes and dreams for their parents. Yet those sentiments could use a bit more oomph behind them as they lie in a no man’s land between trite and profound. The film also takes bold risks with traditional narrative structure, though those choices ultimately undercut the mounting emotional drive.
Beyond such structural issues, the story is also hampered by believability and pacing problems that will make audiences cringe instead of ugly cry. Even though Anna is seemingly selfish and guarded, it’s hard to believe that she never asked her father about the history of his romance with her mother. All of those touching details about her family legacy and her parents’ relationship are treated as major discoveries to her. Some things are better off experienced, but that rationalization feels like a stretch. It takes about an hour for Elisa to have the epiphany about the titular yearly presents, so that central element has little bearing on the pair’s precious bonding experiences. Puccini and Porcaroli have fantastic chemistry, but the lackluster material fails them in these necessary spots. The film gets so tied up trying to explain the gimmicky metaphysical time-travel component that it forgets the hooky, heartrending concept of Mom’s gifts.
Despite all the flaws clouding this potential gem, which tries too hard to be a cross between “My Life” and “It’s a Wonderful Life,” there’s definite room for the movie’s clever ideas to sparkle if it were given the inevitable remake polish. With wittier dialogue, some reworking of the outlandish scenario, and a bit more aesthetic ingenuity applied to the direction, “18 Presents” could be a true gift to those seeking a cathartic cinematic cry. As is, it’s something for the re-gifting pile.