When a film opens with a voiceover as cloying as “My name is Emanuel. I’m 17 years old and I killed my mother,” you know you’re in for a bumpy ride. In the case of The Truth About Emanuel, that ride relies a good deal on shock value, and not so much narrative webbing.
Emanuel (Kaya Scodelario) didn’t technically murder her mother, who died during her childbirth: as the baby took her first breath, her father Dennis (Alfred Molina) tearfully explains, her mother took her last. Now, 17 years later, while still grappling with guilt, Emanuel is a snappy smart-ass, refusing to take anything seriously. She derides her father’s new wife Janice (Frances O’Connor), slinks around their large Victorian home, and listens to an endless parade of French pop in her bedroom.
This pattern begins to change when a new neighbor moves in, the fetching Linda (Jessica Biel). A single mother, she appears to be the spitting image of Emanuel’s mother. As if this isn’t enough warning of trouble ahead, when Emanuel begins to babysit for her, she makes the startling discovery that Linda’s baby isn’t a living child at all, but a sort of hyper-realistic-looking doll. Linda’s backstory is cloudy. She claims her ex-husband “wasn’t very good in the child-rearing department,” but offers little else to explain her leaving him, which leaves the scope and cause of her mental disorder up to Emanuel’s imagination.
Writer-director Francesca Gregorini’s film—recently open in select theaters and available on VOD—fitfully mixes prosaic imagery—such as the recurring spread of ocean water that appears at Emanuel’s feet at a moment’s notice—with a grindingly obvious narrative. Far too many scenes feature glaring exposition, plot points that you see coming from a mile away, combined with some serious dialogue clunkers: “Reality,” Emanuel assures us at one point, “is overrated.”
At the same time, the film also offers solid performances. Scoldelario in particular helps us to see that Emanuel isn’t a bad kid, but only, rather too typically, a teenager who shoulders her burdens with displays of flip melodrama. Scoldelario’s scenes with Molina suggest a delicate, understandably fraught father-daughter relationship; when Dennis recounts to her, once again, the story of her difficult birth, his pain helps to complicate hers.
Still, this family dynamic is soon secondary to the bond developing between Emanuel and Linda, spiked as it is with brightly highlighted allegorical elements. Emanuel, in a kind of inversion of the Electra story, tries to nurture the deeply troubled Linda, even as her own missing mother issues push her behavior into hallucinatory psychosis. Linda, meanwhile, offers the vague potential for closure for the emotionally disturbed Emanuel, a chance to put to rest the self-reproach that has made her life so toxic up until this point.
This slow process might be a function of Emanuel spending so little time with people of her own age, apart from her boyfriend Claude (Aneurin Barnard), whom she meets on their shared commuter train. She is lost in a sea of adults, immersed in feelings of inadequacy and the fate she appears to embrace, at first. “I’m just a girl, a murderer without a motive. So I serve my time, waiting for my sentence to be up,” she says near the beginning, making too clear her philosophy, pre-Linda. Linda, her own obvious damages notwithstanding, presents an alternative for Emanuel, reflecting her considerable pain, but not judging her for it.
Emanuel’s relationship to this clearly unhinged maternal figure enables her to live out a fantasy of having a mother, even someone who seems like her specific mother. In this fantasy, both women help each other through emotional traumas, even as they must also break free of one another—much like all mothers and daughters Their stories don’t so much end conclusively as they open up questions, but it’s clear that the child so long a prisoner of her own self-doubt comes to feel, at last, paroled.