Emoticon :) – Livia de Paolis’s Italianate Look at Intimacy’s New e-Hurdles

Indie opening Friday is Challenge From Woman Director/Writer/Star

Social Media Rule Teen Life and Love, But Do They Serve Them Well?

Adults Worry, But Have their Own Communication Problems

A new woman director, Livia de Paolis, writes, directs and plays the simpatico an absorbing look at the way social media are changing the culture of intimacy

A new woman director, Livia de Paolis, writes, directs and plays the simpatico lead in an absorbing look at the way social media are changing the culture of intimacy

Indie screenings by debut directors in New York City, which has its share, have to compete with as many as 20 commercial movies and documentaries previews a week, which are superficially more polished but by nature less honest. It is that unvarnished frankness and sincerity which makes new works an unexpected joy if they are pulled off with skill and dispatch.

That is the case with Livia de Paolis’s cleverly titled Emoticon which screened last night at the Core Club, in advance of its release in Cinema Village on Friday. Viewers were mostly cast and friends, the latter with the obligation to spread the word in a week swamped for the media by the Book Expo at Javits.

The attractive director/lead and her man in Emoticon chat intimately off-line before the Core Club screening

Social media and early intimacy

A well worked out script seamlessly edited by Vanessa Abbott maintains a lively pace throughout this well executed study of what it views as a significant problem of contemporary society – the effect of social media on superficially sophisticated but essentially naive kids, with Facebook and the rest dominating communication amid the age old stresses of handling the transition from childhood to adulthood.

Negotiating the stepping stones of group popularity and acceptance by the opposite sex over the roaring chasm of possible rejection is notoriously slippery in American schools, where family backgrounds and social status can vary wildly compared with, say, English boarding schools. Emoticon portrays the new world of New York City kids where the limited means of messaging via text, Twitter and Facebook, which struggle to convey complex emotions through emoticons, and overshare experience in the often public and shallow form of selfies and video, have taken over much personal communication among teens and young adults.

People beyond their twenties who grew up without these questionable blessings might suspect as the film appears to do that they handicap the process of understanding and being understood, even if they enhance it by enabling short messages when apart more frequently, and instantly conveying imaginative and playful responses. Understanding in adult relationships is hard enough to master, after all. Fenced within the limits of e-messaging what hope is there that teens with iPhones and Mac Airs can master the complexities of intimacy during their self conscious high school years fraught with the social demands of popularity and fitting in?

Warmth works wonders

This is the challenging theme of Emoticon:), shown last year in Los Angeles and now come to New York. Rome born and raised Livia de Paolis the philosophy graduate director and script writer (with Sarah Nerboso) examines the question with an Italianate eye, suggesting that Italy still has a decade or two to catch up with the US move to on-screen social life and “cool” instead of warmth. She plays the lead role of Elena Gallenti, a single anthropology graduate student in her early thirties trying to research a thesis on “modern means of communication”. Part of the problem is the character’s own awkwardness, pointed to by her PhD advisor (Carol Kane): “How come you want to do a thesis on communication when you can’t even communicate with me?!”

Professionally at home in front of a camera de Paolis exerts an warmth and emotional fluency that carries the story smoothly past the initially self conscious acting of Michael Cristofer as her sullen older man to her growing interest, after the predictable initial rebuff, in the lives and problems of his teen son and daughter, which seem more relevant to her (and her thesis) than his at 64.

Miles and Allison, the two younger leads chat at the after party at the Core screening room

A second stand out screen presence is the young guitar playing son, played by Miles Chandler, as Luke Nevins whose impetuous seduction by blonde fellow teen Jackie (Allison “Allie” Gallerani, also a vivid presence in a film full of lively performances) leads to belated frantic concern over the possibility of pregnancy (learned about the next day in her Google search!). The crisis is resolved by Elena’s friendly intervention – she leads the naive youth to a pharmacist and gets him a morning after pill to give to Jackie.

Complications between her and her stiff older consort are a tad more difficult to negotiate, however, and even less suitable to social media, when she gets pregnant and he is not enthusiastic about the prospect of late fatherhood.

Remember the letter?

There are no dull moments in this big screen-little screen saga which pits old versus new, grown up (supposedly) versus teen, and face to face versus screen, comparing social skills born of experience against those born of raw passion routed through e-messaging but handicapped by its limits, not only missing the subtle signals of body language but complicated by inherent lack of privacy and quiet reflection. Raising a host of questions at every turn, the drama inevitably concludes with no real answer, except as one of the final lines says it best: “Let’s turn off the camera and live in the moment.”

The personal charisma and sincerity of the director-lead attracts the camera’s focus whenever she appears, which is most of the time, and imbues the action with the feel of a genuine search for knowledge and enlightenment about an issue central to personal fulfillment in society today.

Can we survive the threat to intimacy posed by the dominance of e-messaging in relationships, which not so long ago bloomed and deepened so well with the help of the handwritten letter as the sole record of what we wanted to say heart to heart – carefully considered missives in slow paced exchange, sincere and confidently private? Can multiple online chats and video do even better, perhaps, in some ways, or are they inevitably poor substitutes which only anticipate and perhaps even slow real sharing and acceptance?

The film raises these questions provocatively without wholly answering them – just as they are as yet unanswered in real life.

NY Premiere Screening at the Core Club
A Film by Livia de Paolis
EMOTICON 😉 NYC Premiere Screening
With Director/Co-Writer/Actor Livia de Paolis and Actors Miles Chandler, and Michael Cristofer in attendance

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