Comedy/drama, rated PG-13, Center for Contemporary Arts, 2.5 chiles
Emily Dickinson — reclusive spinster, or madcap, passionate lover? Publication-shy, or publication-deprived, rebuffed by patronizing male chauvinist editors? In Madeleine Olnek’s playful revisionist look at Dickinson, the chips are all in on the latter options.
The teenage Emily (Dana Melanie) develops a crush on her best friend Susan Gilbert (Sasha Frolova). They kiss, and kiss, and kiss some more, and then Susan marries Emily’s brother Austin (Kevin Seal) so she can live next door and continue to carry on their affair.
They grow up fast, these kids. By Susan’s wedding, her role is taken over by the actress Susan Ziegler, Emily becomes Molly Shannon, and they’ve both aged a good 30 years. But they’re still kissing as passionately as ever. They never get much beyond that onscreen, although we do see them emerge from a bedroom with stays and bodices askew.
To complicate the romantic situation, a woman named Mabel Todd (Amy Seimetz) becomes Austin’s mistress. Todd edited the first posthumous edition of Dickinson’s poetry, and evidence shows that she not only messed with Emily’s punctuation and some of her wording, she erased the dedications and references to Susan in some of the poems.
Shannon is deft and appealing as Dickinson, sometimes wistful, sometimes merry. She writes incessantly, tucking scraps of poetry into every pocket and seam of her clothing, and even her hair. She and Susan exchange a steady stream of notes between their neighboring houses via Susan’s children.
It’s a low-budget production, and the period costumes feel more like attic dress-up than a credible dip into the 19th century. The mood of the piece careens from slapstick to serious, with pratfalls followed by poetry, and “Because I could not stop for Death” rendered to the tune of “The Yellow Rose of Texas.” Performances, too, are sometimes burlesqued for comic effect, as in a scene with Otis Phillips Lord, a friend of Emily’s late father, who was rumored to have been her lover, but is shown here as a doddering, senile old fool. The point here is to contrast that rumor with the professed truth of her robust lesbian relationship with Susan.
The nights aren’t terribly wild, but the cast has a good time with this take on the Belle of Amherst as LGBTQ icon. The movie has some genuinely funny moments, but a lot of stylistic uncertainty as well. If it feels a bit like a community college production at times, it will still strike a chord with sympathetic audiences more than willing to overlook its rough edges.