Irish writer-director Simon Fitzmaurice made his debut feature, “My Name Is Emily,” after falling into paralysis with ALS, which forced him to use an iris-recognition program to communicate with his cast and crew. While it’s often problematic to draw connections between on-screen action and off-screen biography, there’s no denying that Fitzmaurice’s sensitive road picture teeters on the precipice between life and death, to the point where all other considerations seem small and irrelevant.
Following a 16-year-old girl who ventures cross-country to liberate her father from a mental institution, the film thrums with an urgency that’s both asset and liability, at once invested with deep feeling and undone by a barrage of flashbacks, allusions, and counterintuitive bits of wisdom. Though it world premiered at the Toronto film festival in 2015, “My Name Is Emily” finally reaches U.S. theaters a month after a documentary about its director, “It’s Not Yet Dark,” premiered at Sundance, which may add resonance (and revenue) to the film down the line.
“If you hide from death, you hide from life,” says Emily in the opening narration, which doubles as a thesis statement and an indicator of the poetic phraseology to come. As played by Evanna Lynch, who appeared as Luna Lovegood in the last four “Harry Potter” movies, Emily is an unusually serious and circumspect teenager, schooled in Wordsworth and John Steinbeck, but also schooled by hard knocks. Her loving mother died when she was a child, leaving her in the hands of her academic father Robert (Michael Smiley), who disappears into grief and, finally, loses grip of his sanity. After a distant relative signed Robert’s commitment papers, Emily bounced around a series of foster homes before finally landing with a caring couple that, nonetheless, drive her crazy with their unwavering optimism.
All that backstory comes out in the form of sad reveries that carry far more emotion than the events in the present day. Though an outcast in her latest school, Emily earns an admirer in Arden (George Webster), an earnest and handsome kid who comes from privilege, but wriggles under an unsatisfying home life of his own. When Emily fails to get her annual birthday card from her father, she persuades Arden to drop everything and drive across the Irish countryside to break Robert out of the ward. As their vintage yellow hatchback sputters slowly through the hills, Emily ever so slowly opens to Arden’s charms, but her resistance is formidable, tied to the single-mindedness of her quest and an understandable instinct not to let anyone get too close to her again.
The teen romance in “My Name is Emily” never comes to satisfying fruition, perhaps as a consequence of Emily’s obsession with the past and how profoundly her father’s intellect and temperament has affected her personality. Though travelogue beauty of rolling Irish hills and lakes comes alive through DP Seamus Deasy’s lens, the second act slogs through frisky getting-to-know-you sessions between Emily and Arden, and contrived situations, like getting approached by a gang of local toughs after they’ve staked down for the night. Fitzmaurice bridges these scenes together with gentle pop and folk songs, but they’re no substitute for the real feeling that never quite develops between the two.
While Fitzmaurice leans too heavily on self-conscious visual poetry, the film picks up when Emily reflects on her relationship with her father, who preached the gospel of “living in the moment” while privately slipping into inconsolable bouts of grief. “My Name is Emily” doesn’t present Robert as a contradiction per se, but a thoughtful man who couldn’t get over the inexplicable loss of his wife, despite his attempts to turn her death into an exhilarating design for living. His story suggests a stronger, more direct engagement with life and death than the film that surrounds it, which operates from more of a philosophical distance.
It doesn’t help that the philosophy is frequently bunk. One repeated credo, “A fact is a point of view,” is meant to express Emily and Robert’s flexibility of thought, but it turns on the cliché that it’s really the mad among us who are truly sane — and vice versa. “My Name is Emily” believes firmly and vigorously in life’s hidden joys and our ability to rearrange our thinking to accept it, but its own preciousness proves too steep an obstacle.