Written and directed by Francesca Gregorini
“Reality is overrated,” says the title character of The Truth About Emanuel, quite drily, early in the film. And, indeed, the difference between what’s real and what’s fake, and whether it matters for a person to delineate between the two, is at the core of this suburbia-set story. Unfortunately, when Kaya Scodelario, as the title character, delivers this would-be deep thought to a boy who’s besotted with her, it arrives with a thud. Certainly, she’s a teenager, consumed with guilt at the death of her mother during her birth, but it seems as though Emanuel, both in action and in dialogue, is meant to be a prickly but lovable true-to-life teen, instead of a Movie Teen, which is what she sounds like.
Emanuel now lives with her father (Alfred Molina, reliably gruff) and new stepmother (Frances O’Connor), and is mostly content with leading her stepmom to believe any outrageous thing she says. One day, they get a new neighbor, Linda (Jessica Biel), a new mother who bears a striking resemblance to Emanuel’s dead one. So, Emanuel feels obligated to get to know Linda and her baby, but while babysitting, she comes to a shocking realization that only draws her closer to this young mom. (This review will not spoil that realization, in part because, until the final 20 minutes, the film is vague about whether what we’re seeing is an accurate depiction of Linda’s life, or a case of an unreliable narrator.)
What this movie doesn’t seem to consider are the consequences of its characters’ actions, simply the power inherent in those actions. It’s enough that Emanuel feels closer to Linda than she feels to anyone else in her life, in spite of what that closeness represents. The voices of reason that surround her, from her father to the boy she’s decided she’ll have a relationship with, are tuned out in favor of maintaining an awkward and painful charade. We are meant to see Emanuel struggle through her interactions with Linda, and decide her actions are honorable in their good intentions, but it’s hard to grasp exactly where Emanuel’s mind is. She seems to drift into a hallucinatory state, imagining that she’s either still in the womb (shown, in fairly predictable fashion, as an endless blue ocean) or that she’s experiencing a dream her mother related to her father before she died. Emanuel doesn’t totally seem unable to accept the truth of her life (and of Linda’s life-as-lie), but she is totally unwilling to acknowledge what that might mean to the world around her.
The issues with The Truth About Emanuel are mostly separate from its ensemble (though Biel struggles with a few of the emotional beats, from something as basic as tenderly holding Emanuel’s face after hearing that her mother died in labor). Scodelario, known mostly for her work on the British series Skins, is convincing as a self-centered teenager who’s sure that she understands how the world around her operates. Especially in the first act, when she’s trying to prove how cooler-than-thou she is, though, the dialogue seems like a writer’s assumption of how a teenager would talk, not accurate to actual teenagers. O’Connor and Molina each have a few subtle and emotional moments, which work in no small part because both are such talented character actors. (Molina’s late scene with Scodelario, in which Emanuel forces her father to recount the last day of her mother’s life, just so she can hear it again, is probably the best, and most uncomfortable, scene in the film.)
The Truth About Emanuel is, arguably, a misleading title. Whatever truth there may be to unearth by these characters is less about Emanuel—the act of her mother dying in childbirth is the most weighty bit of this girl’s life, and it is among the first sentences she utters in the film, via a pointless voiceover narration that’s tossed aside almost instantly—and more about the beautiful new neighbor. It is, perhaps, not terribly difficult to understand why Emanuel keeps Linda’s life a secret for as long as she can, attempting to stop the onslaught of the real world upon this woman’s fragile home life. That, however, doesn’t mean it’s as exciting or engrossing as writer-director Francesca Gregorini may wish it to be. The basic nugget of the story is fascinating, and would make for a potentially gripping short story or novella, but the perspective from which it is presented isn’t nearly as compelling as it should be.
— Josh Spiegel