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‘Amelia’s Children’ Review: Returning to Portugal, an American Finds Some Nasty Surprises in His Family Tree

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A fitfully kooky 23andMe-gone-wrong scary story, “Amelia’s Children” follows an American couple in Portugal as they become entwined in an ancient bloodline of witchcraft. The horror project makes for an intriguing follow-up to Lisbon-based filmmaker Gabriel Abrantes’ much lighter 2018 feature “Diamantino” (that one co-directed with Daniel Schmidt), which lampooned soccer icon Cristiano Ronaldo’s patriotic celebrity with giant puppy dog daydream sequences and a prankish but tender queer romance. In “Diamantino,” the pair crafted a fantasia chockful of big, goofy internet-age signifiers without betraying a certain protective instinct for its characters, inventing an entirely original tone.

By comparison, “Amelia’s Children” stays within more familiar territory. Here, Abrantes once again casts Carloto Cotta, this time playing a pensive American musician named Edward. After a DNA-testing service tracks down the biological family he was kidnapped from as an infant, the 30-something and his devoted girfriend, Ryley (Brigette Lundy-Paine), jet to Portugal to visit a locally notorious multi-million-dollar estate. There lives Edward’s decrepit mother, Amelia (Anabela Moreira), and his lithe, long-haired twin brother, Manuel (also Cotta, sporting a cryptic smile).

Even with his dual roles, Cotta soon cedes lead status to Lundy-Paine, whose unease becomes the perspective we see Edward’s family through. Initially supportive of the homecoming, Ryley grows wary as her boyfriend’s family closes ranks, clearly reluctant to allow him to return to the States. Lundy-Paine gives acute feeling to their character’s eroding patience. Then Abrantes unleashes the works on them. Also serving as his own composer, the filmmaker puts together one impressively calibrated build after another for Lundy-Paine to navigate: loud nightmare sequences, cheeky jump scares and a bona fide movie monster in Amelia, who achieves just the right WTF effect to be both instantly repelling while stirring concern.

Though in her 40s, Moreira is playing much, much older, hobbling around under pounds of prosthetics to convey decades of iffy cosmetic surgeries and wear-and-tear. A puttering mass of constipated plastic, it’s wonderfully difficult to decipher how Amelia even feels about her scene partners. Hostile? Compassionate? Aroused?

Abrantes has a blast deploying the matriarch scene to scene, but his penchant for mischief ends up betraying him later on. As Edward grows distant from Ryley and both become taken by hallucinations, the film suddenly offers a clear-eyed explanation of the depraved acts that prop up the bloodline. It’s a less galling reveal than it could be and, from there, the intrigue ends. A climactic tilt into a fight for survival remains sharply rendered by Abrantes, but it unfolds towards a forecast destination. The film’s evocative edge is gone.

But even as “Amelia’s Children” seems more ordinary by its conclusion, Cotta’s dazed performances give it a special center. As he did in “Diamantino,” the actor is playing a naive but emotionally wounded himbo in Edward, whose dopiness is darkly reflected in his twin’s one-dimensional mama’s boy attachment. Cotta has a face fit for farce, with puzzled, wide eyes that Abrantes takes great pleasure in pulling the wool over. It’s enough fun just to see him get taken for a ride.