Reviews

Jessica Biel Gets Melodramatic in 'The Truth About Emanuel'

Piers Marchant

Emanuel isn't a bad kid, but only, rather too typically, a teenager who shoulders her burdens with displays of flip melodrama.


The Truth About Emanuel

Director: Francesca Gregorini
Cast: Kaya Scodelario, Jessica Biel, Alfred Molina, Frances O'Connor, Aneurin Barnard, Jimmi Simpson
Rated: NR
Studio: Tribeca Films. Well Go USA
Year: 2013
US date: 2014-01-10 (Limited release)
Website
Trailer

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.

4

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less
6

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image