Tuesday, April 23, 2024

‘Amelia’s Children’ Never Quite Gels

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I often use “cinematic kelin bottle” to describe how a movie’s flaws can feed into its strengths, creating a fascinating failure. But then there are movies whose flaws spoil the brew instead of making it enjoyable.

This brings us to Gabriel Abrantes’s Portuguese-American gothic horror story Amelia’s Children, a movie with four charismatic performances and a fifth that almost sinks the entire enterprise. Stranger still is that the disastrous fifth performance is one-half of a deliciously creepy performance that shows that perhaps Abrantes’s own script might be the culprit.

amelia's children
Riley (Brigette Lundey-Paine) and an older Amelia (Anabela Moreira).

Carloto Cotta plays long-lost twins Ed and Manuel; as Ed, he’s a sentient wet blanket. But as Manuel, he’s an enigmatic, sensual little weirdo. The contrast between the two characters is so stark it’s proof that while Cotta’s Ed torpedoes whatever mood and suspense Abrantes has built, it’s not his fault. How else would Manuel be such the polar opposite? With his long hair and belt that’s not tucked in all the way, as he walks like someone stepping out of an Old Spice commercial, he’s almost hypnotic compared to the walking void that is Ed.

Ed is so boring I wondered what his girlfriend Riley, played by the captivating Brigette Lundy-Paine, saw in him. Lundey-Paine’s Riley is vibrant, curious, and trembles with a personality that her relationship with the snooze-fest Ed almost overwhelms the central mystery of Amelia’s Children

It doesn’t help that Abrantes spends far too much time treating the salacious and trashy aspects of Amelia’s Children with far too much restraint and taste. Abrantes plants a trail of breadcrumbs that lead us to forgone conclusions involving cannibalism, incest, and witchery. While the last third upholds its pact with the audience and soars off the deep end, it comes too late. The pacing has been destroyed by Cotta’s Ed and Abrantes’s refusal to lay a foundation of suspense. 

amelia's children
Brother Ed and Manuel (Carloto Cotta) a bizarre study in contrasts.

Instead, he and Vasco Viana’s camera rely on trite jump scares and droll, suspense-ridden scenes involving things that go bump in the dark. However, the moments where Abrantes and Viana glimpse Riley’s psyche, nightmares, and her discoveries as she wanders the strange house alone are where Ameila’s Children find its true horror.

The crown jewel of Amelia’s Children, though, is Anabela Moreira and Alba Baptista, who are the older and younger versions of the mysterious Amelia. A character so well conceived and executed I had assumed it was Baptista in heavy makeup but discovered that the two actors merely worked closely to mirror each other’s mannerisms. 

The makeup job on Moreira’s face reminded me of something out of the 1990s Dick Tracy, and I mean that with love. Ed the drag even comments that he found his mother’s appearance unsettling. Though he chalks it up to plastic surgery and not what it is, an aging witch who hasn’t fed on any newborns lately.

Amelia’s Children shrewdly finds ways to inject modern technology into the age-old genre, contrasting the tools of the modern age with the horrors and fears of the past. Riley gets a DNA test for Ed’s birthday, leading to Manuel and Amelia finding him. Riley uses Google Translate with a local woman who tells her of the legend of the witch living in the woods and what happened to her daughter. Though, as usual, the technology works surprisingly well, which I wanted to joke about; if I’m willing to buy into immortal witches, that concession has already been made.

Abrantes and Viana splendidly capture the Porugause countryside while showing us how isolated Riley and Ed are from the rest of the world. In a way, at times, Amelia’s Children is trying to be a fable. But Abrantes is so busy trying to make every frame beautiful that he forgets to make some scenes haunting. Until, again, that gloriously bug-nutty ending.

Watching Amelia’s Children, I began to feel that while filming Abrantes realized that far from being Cotto’s story it’s actually Riley’s. This would explain why we spend so much time with Riley alone as she wonders the grounds and puts the pieces together, and so little time with the vacuous Ed or the creepy Manuel. It creates a dissonance at the heart of Amelia’s Children that strands Abrantes and his actors.

I have a term I use, sketchbook cinema. Sketchbook Cinema is a movie that has a paper-thin story, but it’s elevated by craftmanship. In other words, it’s all about the vibes. The films of John Carpenter or Hammer horror films are textbook sketchbook cinema.

Amelia’s Children comes tantalizing close to being sketchbook cinema. Despite its gothic tendencies, Abrantes can never keep the tensions, partially because of the one charismatic free performance and partially because he and Viana can never sustain a mood. Often, scenes will have characters blow up into an argument that feels out of left field as if we’re missing a scene or two. The film skips the laying of the foundation, skips right to the emotional explosions, and rips us out of the moment.

ameila's children
A young Amelia (Alba Baptista) in happier times.

All of this results in an irritating experience as there’s apparent talent on display by everyone involved. Even Cotto, again, Manuel is amusingly koo-koo-ka-choo that, tragically, Ed seems to be a walking corpse. I can only assume Abrantes wanted them that way to contrast or show how unmoored Ed feels without his family, except the difference between Ed before he meets his mother and twin and after is zilch.

The irregular rhythms, Cotto’s miscalculated performance, and odd lack of commitment to a vibe blunt the final turn of the screw. Yet, the final scene of Amelia’s Children captures an eeriness of the taboo so potent that I can hardly call the film a failure. But it’s such a bumpy ride to get there.  

Image courtesy of Goodfellas and Le Pacte

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