The Truth About Emanuel is one of those films that reveals its twist about a third of the way through. In most such films, this act is a signal that the film isn’t really about the twist. I kept waiting for this one to get on with being about what it was going to be about once the twist was revealed. It tries, but it never quite gets there.
Emanuel (Kaya Scoderino) is a troubled teen–are there any other kinds in movies? Her mother died in childbirth, and she calls herself a “murderer” because of that fact. She doesn’t much like her dad’s new wife, but she has managed to connect with a boy on the subway as they both try to one-up each other with elaborate lies designed to get other passengers to give up the seats they want.
Eventually Linda (Jessica Biel) moves in next door, and Emanuel surprises everyone (including, possibly, herself) by offering to babysit Linda’s newborn. Beyond that point is where spoilers lie.
Everyone acts just a little strange in the film, and we’re never quite sure if they are responding to Emanuel’s strangeness, are dealing with their own brokenness, or are merely appearing to do so because of the protagonist’s skewed perception. Is Linda’s possessiveness about her infant just natural maternal instinct, or does it mask deeper anxieties? Is her relationship with Emanuel drawing the teen out from her alienated shell or distancing her further from the rest of the world?
Unfortunately, once these questions are answered, the answers don’t do much beyond advancing the plot. The film invites and creates sympathy for its characters but falls short of providing us a foothold to understand and thus truly empathize with them.
Even so, the actors are terrific, and there is pleasure in watching them perform. Scodelario (who bears a superficial resemblance to Kristen Stewart) gives a quieter, more restrained performance than we are used to getting from actors depicting characters struggling with depression (and perhaps mental illness). Jessica Biel has always been somewhat underappreciated as an actress, probably because of her tumultuous beginnings in television and early tabloid attention. She is able to convey to the audience that something is “off” about Linda without it being so dramatic that we can’t understand why no one else sees it. Alfred Molina gives a solid turn as Emanuel’s dad. And every time one sees Frances O’Connor one is renewed in wonder that she never quite parlayed A.I. and Mansfield Park into superstardom.
Given how few movies there are written and directed by women that are not romantic comedies, one wants to be encouraging. And truthfully, there’s not much here to be critical about. It’s a solid if unmemorable festival circuit kind of film (it played at Tribeca) that may have a harder time getting people’s attention than keeping it.