Originally posted on Vérité November 26th, 2013: http://www.veritefilmmag.com/
In writer/director Francesca Gregorini’s sophomore effort (her debut was 2009’s Tanner Hall with Rooney Mara in her first leading role), she pulls focus on two deeply plagued women able to provide for each other within a rickety and artificial set of circumstances. There’s a lot of potential in The Truth About Emanuel (previously titled Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes), but realist fairy tales walk a tonal tightrope that requires a certain degree of truthfulness to make it work and Gregorini’s characters’ emotions are so imitative and spuriously performed that the film quickly becomes an actively aggravating experience.
On the surface, Emanuel (Kaya Scodelario) is your typical acerbic teenager who spends her time provoking everyone around her. She lives with her kindly father (Alfred Molina) and her well-meaning but overbearing stepmother (Frances O’Connor). Her birth mother died when she was born, leaving her with a permanent sense of crippling guilt as well as an unfulfilled need for a maternal presence. When new neighbor Linda (Jessica Biel), a single mother with an infant daughter enters the picture, Emanuel becomes infatuated her and they quickly become part of each other’s lives when the sullen teen is asked to babysit. Emanuel soon discovers something shocking about Linda but instead of telling someone, her desire to sustain and deepen their connection prompts her to keep said secret and be a complicit part of Linda’s world.
The opening minutes of The Truth About Emanuel succinctly encapsulate everything wrong with it. It’s almost always a warning sign when a film opens with voiceover narration that is used once and only once. It’s a convenient shortcut, a lazy way of presenting a character’s situation without organically fitting it into the story. Emanuel cuts to the chase, telling us everything we need to know about her with a purposely-galling statement meant to capture our attention. We see Kaya Scodelario centered in the frame and hear her self-defining confession: “My name is Emanuel. I’m 17 years old and I killed my mother”. She describes herself as “a murderer without a motive” and goes on to offer unsavory details about that fateful day of birth and death: “As she bled, the doctor pushed air into my lungs and pressed his hands repeatedly against my chest with the same rhythmic repetitive motion he used to jerk himself off that very morning”. That kind of sentence, setting out to shock with overwrought prose and pretension that masks a lack of voice, sums up the ways in which this film is misguided in its execution.
The Truth About Emanuel doesn’t know how to progress or effectively convey its story. Gregorini plays it straight as a coming-of-age film with some droplet poeticisms thrown in for good measure. But the unconscionably weak script fails to engage and resolutely sets itself up as a means to an empty end. The characters and their connections do not feel authentic, the inept construct goes nowhere, and Linda’s mental illness is insensitively piled onto what is already a ciphered catalyst of a character. This is a film about two women yet one of those women is treated like a plot point instead of a person. An unfortunate consequence that leaves us stuck with Emanuel.
There are few things worse than poorly written bitchiness. The ill-conceived character of Emanuel makes you appreciate even mediocre snark all the more. It doesn’t help that Scodelario has a rushed stiltedness to her line delivery, further demonstrating just how bad the material is. Like Linda, Emanuel never quite feels like a character, let alone a person we care about. This is a troubled girl and even though we are told and shown this time and time again, we never feel it. The only thing really going for Emanuel and Linda is that Scodelario and Jessica Biel have a chemistry that transcends what they have to work with.
The screenplay is the real problem here, given that Gregorini lacks any kind of discernible voice at this point in her career. Here is a semi-autobiographical story about grief, maternal bonding, and growing up but despite this personal connection, Gregorini is unable to flesh it out or make it heartfelt. The writing is on the wall at every turn. There is even a romantic subplot with a boy named Claude (Aneurin Barnard) but only because every rote coming-of-age film demands them in order to fill up the time. There is a scene where Emanuel unreasonably accosts him for not being on the same train as her, which of course leads to a kiss. It is a scene so painfully strained it becomes laughable. There was a glimmering nugget of an idea within The Truth About Emanuel as well as the potential for the rare depiction of the maternal connection between two women. Sadly, the patchy and transparent execution quashes all possibility.