Movie Review: “The Truth About Emanuel”

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A sense of mystery is a hard thing to create on film. So much so that discarding that sense, once you’ve created it, is almost always a mistake.
That’s the blunder of “The Truth About Emanuel.” It sets up a lovely psychological puzzle, things which we do not know about the title character, which the ensuing movie doesn’t really justify. And then it ruins the effect by over-explaining pretty much everything in the third act.
Emanuel uses the masculine spelling of her name.
“They thought I was going to be a boy.”
But this skinny, sassy and morbid beauty is anything but. Emanuel (Kaya Scodelario) is sexy, self-confident longer who lives with the knowledge that her mother died in childbirth. “It’s on my tab,” she narrates. “It accumulates interest with every passing day.”
Which may explain her dark take on the world, a persona she’s layered on top of the usual doses of teen sarcasm and self-absorption. She has the confident wit of a great beauty who knows she intimidates men — like the boy (Aneurin Barnard) she flirts with on the bus, or the boss at the pharmacy (Jimmi Simpson) who lets every rude remark slide, just to enjoy another day of her company.
Emanuel wants nothing to do with Dad’s newish wife (Frances O’Connor) or indeed Dad himself (Alfred Molina). But the fetching new neighbor, all bangs and long, diaphanous dresses, attracts her attention. Linda (Jessica Biel) is a new mom. And she needs a baby-sitter. Emanuel figures she can squeeze that in.
“I need the money. I’ve decided I’m going to become a collector of ‘Precious Moments.’”
But Linda has a secret, one which she’s apparently unaware of. Her baby, Chloe, is just a doll. And Emanuel cannot figure out how to process this or broach the subject with the “new mom.”
Co-writer/director Francesca Gregorini sets us up for something sinister, toying with Linda’s fixation on a static-filled baby monitor and Biel’s loopy interpretation of loony Linda.
Emanuel’s response — to keep Linda’s secret, to never point out to the crazy woman the obvious — suggests that she wonders if she’s hallucinating this reality, or merely bending that reality to suit her psychological needs. Somebody’s crazy. But who?
There’s a sort of “Juno” sass and swagger to Brit actress Scodelario’s interpretation of the character. She turns the over matched Claude, her bus acquaintance, into a “boyfriend” by fiat, shocking fellow bus-riders with whispered suggestions that she needs the seat next to her to tell her boyfriend that she’s pregnant. Her Emanuel gets away with rude eccentricity on her brass, her looks and her wit.
But the “Truth About Emanuel” that writers and director come up with is far too pedestrian for this catty, catwalk-ready monster. They had a couple of characters and a couple of actresses playing them who could have led us anywhere — into the dark recesses of guilt and insanity, or worse. Instead, they waste this cast and these characters on a story so conventional, so neatly wrapped up in the finale, that the real mystery is how Gregorini and co-writer Sarah Thorpe didn’t see that.
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MPAA Rating: Unrated, with adult themes an situations
Cast: Kaya Scodelario, Jessica Biel, Alfred Molina, Frances O’Connor, Aneurin Barnard, Jimmi Simpson
Credits: Directed by Francesca Gregorini, written by Francesca Gregorini and Sarah Thorpe. A Tribeca Film release.
Running time: 1:36

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