Writer/director Francesca Gregorini’s The Truth About Emanuel is a psychological thriller about the ricocheting effects of a mother’s death in childbirth. It focuses on the strange attraction between a seventeen-year-old girl named Emanuel and her new neighbor Linda, who looks strikingly like the the mother that died the day Emanuel was born. It is a movie about two crazy people who find a way to fill a hole in one another’s lives. All of this checks off good boxes in my critic’s brain: a relationship between women, an exploration of madness, an inquiry into the horror elements that accompany giving birth and being born. There’s just one problem: the truth about the eponymous Emanuel is that she’s an awful character.
Emanuel (Kaya Scodelario) is surly and sarcastic in the way that many teenage girls are. But we’re introduced to her in a cringe-worthy voiceover in which she describes her birth as a graphic murder, compares the repetitive motion of the CPR that saved her infant life to the motion of masturbation, and sums up her resultant existence as nothing more than “doing her time.” This is not to make light of the wound that childbirth death leaves behind. It is a story worth telling, but when I try to call to mind another fictional exploration of it, all I hear are the ghostly moans of Colin Craven in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s sweet, sad novel The Secret Garden.
Actually, The Secret Garden offers the chance to make a useful comparison. There is a mythological power to the loss of a parent, as demonstrated in everything from Cinderella to David Copperfield to Disney animated films to Harry Potter. The bereavement of a child in this way provides a motivation for lostness, unrest, and wide-eyed longing in a young protagonist, and arouses the sympathies of an audience. But Burnett’s The Secret Garden is subversive in the way that it depicts childhood grief as expressed in petulance and anger. The central characters in the classic children’s novel are, to use the literary expression, brats. Granted, they are brats who grow, but Burnett is bold to ask us to root for children who grieve unattractively.
Other writers have tried this to varying degrees of success. J.K. Rowling received fan backlash for her portrayal of an angry, brooding Harry in her fifth novel, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, a stark change in the charming orphan of the previous books. His anger was toned down for the film adaptation, which disappointed me; I found his adolescent rage refreshingly honest. So what, then, is wrong with Gregorini’s film about a girl dealing with the loss of her mother in her own warped way?
Well, there’s the first scene of dialogue, in which Emanuel baits her friendly new stepmother with the story of a sex dream Emanuel had about her. Then there’s her romantic subplot, which involves her stalking, yelling at, and aggressively kissing a boy with whom she’s only made small talk on the metro a few times (this would never fly if the genders were reversed). All of this is then exacerbated by the way Emanuel forces her father (Alfred Molina) to retell the story of her mother’s death over and over, to which he responds, “Do you do this to punish me?”
The problem isn’t Scodelario, whose huge eyes give Emanuel as much creepy presence as any actress could muster. In fact, Scodelario’s intensity could have breathed a lot more life into the Twilight films were she cast as Bella. The issue here is that Gregorini puts snappy, bitter words in the character’s mouth that no teenager would have the wherewithal to put together. She writes Emanuel like a nightmare version of Juno. For example, when her stepmother asks her why she would want to babysit for Linda, she deadpans, “I need the money. I’ve decided to become a collector of Precious Moments figurines so that I can look at them and be reminded of life’s special beauty.” This approach would make some sense if the film kept a distance from its protagonist, but all signs point to Gregorini’s sympathy for the girl and the idea that we are supposed to root for her. At one point, Emanuel’s new beau Claude coos to her, “It’s like you’re in your own private world.” And how, Claude. But of course, this leads to a perfectly normal teen movie makeout session.
All this is a shame, because Gregorini shows a talent for eerie atmospherics, and she actually has an interesting story on her hands when it comes to Emanuel’s relationship to her neighbor, new mother Linda (Jessica Biel, looking like the fertility goddess of Anthropologie). In babysitting for Linda, Emanuel experiences a kind of motherly love for the first time. But when a secret of Linda’s comes to light, Emanuel accesses a protective, maternal side of herself that she never knew she had. The characters provide a twisted mirror for one another and share an uncomfortable, almost erotic affection. Gregorini deserves praise for her ability to wring suspense from a roomy, daylit house decked out in Pottery Barn. The scenes where Emanuel and Linda must both interact with Linda’s child are deliciously tense.
Especially resonant is the image of water that Gregorini returns to throughout the film, waves of grief literally washing up around the characters, culminating in a beautiful underwater climax. This, along with the elegant, surprisingly redemptive ending, provide a reason to look at The Truth About Emanuel as more than just an odd failure. The imagery on display in the film digs into the oceanic, feminine pain of motherhood and loss and longing. I’m glad a movie about this was made. I just wish it were The Truth About someone aside from a reprehensible, inexplicable caricature of a troubled teen girl.
“The Truth About Emmanuel” is out in select cities across the country. Check here for specific theater locations. The film is also available on VOD.