As Emily opens, a married couple is preparing dinner in the small kitchen of their apartment. They sit and eat mostly in silence, idle small talk disguising an obvious, unspoken tension between them. A few nights later, after the weekly Bible study they host, the husband, Nathan (Michael Draper), drops a bombshell on his wife, Emily (Rachael Perrell Fosket): He's realized he might not believe in God.
He says he feels guilted into Christianity — it was his parents' religion, not his own — and it's starting to eat away at his conscience. "If I wasn't a Christian, you never would have married me," he tells his wife, and even she knows he's probably right.
Nathan, a copywriter and aspiring novelist, moves into a co-worker's place. Emily, who works in a neighborhood coffee shop, clings to her faith, praying that her husband will experience some kind of epiphany. The film looks on as they dance around the subjects of divorce and reconciliation, and as every discussion of religion devolves into an explosive argument.
Ryan Graves, who wrote and directed Emily, is aware that his film's basic premise makes it sound like one of those horrible, simple-minded Kirk Cameron vehicles in which the heroes are unblinkered believers and agnosticism is always punished in the end.
"Those movies don't get at faith with enough honesty," Graves says. "I think they have an agenda they're trying to push, and I don't think that's the best way to go about it. It reduces the conflict to black or white."
Emily isn't a Christian movie per se, at least not in the sense that modern audiences understand the term "Christian movie." It's really the story of a couple struggling to stay connected; the fact that faith is their stumbling block is almost incidental.
"I always intended to make it about their relationship and not religion," Graves says, citing the influence of Ingmar Bergman and the Polish master Krzysztof Kielowski, who explored Christianity in both intellectual and emotional terms. "I think religion is a fascinating conflict unto itself."
Emily was filmed in Graves' current home of Portland in just 18 days and with a budget of $20,000. (Graves later raised $7,000 through Indiegogo to finance post-production costs.) It was mostly shot in Graves' apartment — "My wife was coming home every night to a film crew," he says — and in local businesses that lent out their spaces on the cheap.
Its story is somewhat rooted in autobiography. Graves was raised in Sammamish in a Christian family, and he found himself wandering from the faith while he was attending Whitworth University as an English major. Graves discovered cinema around the same time, enrolling in a film class taught by beloved Whitworth professor Leonard Oakland.
"We'd get coffee once a week and he'd edit my film reviews and assign me DVDs from the Whitworth library. We'd just talk about movies," Graves recalls. "That was the greatest intro to film that any student could have. I still have his copy of On the Waterfront."
Graves' transition from film fanatic to filmmaker was a swift one. He and his friend Kelly McCrillis, Emily's producer, entered their first short in the annual campus film festival bearing Oakland's name, and it took second place. Graves' follow-up, a short titled I Wonder, later took first. A few years later, Emily, Graves' debut feature, made its premiere out of competition at the 2016 Leonard Oakland Film Festival.
"[Whitworth] did a good number on me, because I go back and visit every year," Graves says, adding that his sister-in-law is now a junior there. "It's been kind of a legacy for my family. Whitworth has been the constant, and Spokane was a no-brainer when we were booking the film."
A handful of Graves' film professors from Whitworth will headline discussions following screenings of Emily at the Magic Lantern this weekend. That seems appropriate, because not only is it a film about discussion, but it sends you out of the theater wanting to talk about it. Although Graves never takes sides in the central conflict and leaves the future of Nathan and Emily's marriage mostly ambiguous, he's found that viewers, both religious and not, have approached the film from many different angles.
"Some say they're doomed. Some say they're going to work it out," he says. "For me, this is just their first crisis, and I think they're realizing that marriage is worth the struggle." ♦
Emily at the Magic Lantern Theater: Fri-Thu, March 10-16. Director Ryan Graves, producer Kelly McCrillis and Whitworth professors Casey Andrews, Fred Johnson and Leonard Oakland will be present for post-screening discussions March 10 and 11.