As she drives down a narrow, poorly lit road through a forest, a woman is momentarily distracted and veers into the path of an oncoming lorry. Swerving, she avoids catastrophe and stops the car to check on the child on the back seat, still blissfully sleeping. Death is always close in producer-turned-director Cory Choy’s debut feature Esme, My Love, a magical-realist drama that is consistently intriguing but never quite fulsome enough to become compelling.
After Hannah (Stacey Weckstein) discovers that her daughter Esme (Audrey Grace Marshall) has a terminal illness (a plot point barely suggested until the film’s closing moments), she takes her for a camping trip into the woods, and a journey to her grandparents’ old house to visit the mysterious ‘Emily’. It’s never made entirely clear who Emily is; a sister, lost daughter, or something else? Certainly, there is something strange about the trip: Esme’s insistence on calling Hannah by her first name rather than ‘Mom’, Hannah’s distracted mood, or simply the strange loneliness of the woods themselves.
This intrigue drives the film’s first act while Fletcher Wolfe’s gritty cinematography finds an alluring balance between earthy reality and the ethereal. The colours of the forest are muted but rich, while sunlight doesn’t so much stream from the wooded canopy but bloom. In the tradition of magical realism, the woods are not supernatural but neither are they mundanely corporeal either. So too, do Esme and Hannah occupy that uncanny in-between space, like spectres that don’t seem to belong to one world or the other.
The woods themselves are a psychic space, while Choy’s frequent deployment of mirrors are an ever-present allusion to otherworldly portals, distorted realities and disjointed time. We’re never quite sure Hannah’s true intentions, or even if Esme really is her daughter, but a few times too often that otherwise intriguing narrative ambiguity slips into something like obfuscation, as if the film can’t decide when it should be revealing key information.
This is not a plea for straightforward literal answers, but there is a difference between psychological complexity and narrative clarity; understanding for example, who Emily is, feels important to the emotional catharsis of the film, yet it’s muddled in the final act because we don’t fully understand her relationship to Hannah. The components are all here for a compelling psychological drama, led by two excellent performances, but a conflation between narrative obfuscation with thematic depth undermines Esme, My Love’s final emotional impact.