PLOT: Emanuel (Kaya Scodelario) is an acerbic teen on the verge of turning eighteen. Having never known the mother that died giving birth to her, Emanuel lives with her devoted father (Alfred Molina) and his new wife (Frances O’Connor). When a beautiful young mother, Linda (Jessica Biel) moves in next door- she quickly becomes a sort of surrogate mother figure, and hires Emanuel to babysit her baby. All seems well until Emanuel discovers that Linda’s “baby” is in fact a doll- and that Linda is deeply unbalanced. But, rather than betray her new mother figure, Emanuel becomes deeply devoted to maintaining her lie.
REVIEW: Movies like EMANUEL AND THE TRUTH ABOUT FISHES are the reason I love coming to Sundance. Every year I hope that I’ll find a movie like this- where I walk into it knowing absolutely nothing about what I’m about to see- but end up being thrown for a loop by a film that just happens to be brilliant. EMANUEL AND THE TRUTH ABOUT FISHES is one of those movies.
Granted, as I write this I’ve only just finished day three of the festival, but I can’t imagine this not ending up as one of my favourite movies of the fest. Like other films that I’ve fallen in love with here, such as MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE and TAKE SHELTER, EMANUEL isn’t an easy film to classify. It has a lot in common with the indie run of suburban malaise movies that came out of few years ago- although with frequent breaks into fantasy and surreal imagery, that might not be entirely apt. But whatever it is- it’s damn good.
Director Francesca Gregorini previously made a splash with her film TANNER HALL (starring Rooney Mara- who’s one of the producers), which I haven’t seen, but definitely will in the near future. The thing about EMANUEL that’s most immediately striking is the presence of Kaya Scodelario in the titular role. A hypnotically beautiful twenty-year old- best known for her role in Andrea Arnold’s WUTHERING HEIGHTS, and the British show SKINS, she’s immediately captivating in the same way Elizabeth Olson or Jennifer Lawrence have been in past editions of the fest. There’s no precociousness to the wearier than her years Emanuel- whose acerbic nature hides a damaged soul.
She’s matched by Jessica Biel- in a performance that, if enough people see it, can be a game changer for her career. Anyone who’s dismissed her as just another pretty face needs to see her as the obviously unbalanced, but vulnerable Linda. Without giving too much away, I’ll just say that Biel’s performance is truly multifaceted, and is far from your typical screen depiction of insanity.
While mostly a two-hander between Biel and Scodelario, the supporting cast is also top notch. Alfred Molina is his usual dependable self as Emanuel’s patient father. Ditto Frances O’Connor as her step-mother, who tries in her own way to be a mother figure, but tries to hard for the reserved Emanuel. I also really liked Jimmi Simpson in an initially goofy role that gradually becomes more significant. CITADEL’s Aneurin Barnard is engaging as Emanuel’s love interest- a shy boy she meets on her daily train commutes.
Truly, Gregorini’s made an extraordinary film- with perfect performances, dazzling visuals, and a haunting musical score by Nathan Larson. Again- it’s not for everyone, and it’s far from conventional. But- if you go in with an open mind, and are anxious to soak up something a little different, this is a gem. If there’s any justice, this one will get a lot of attention. At any rate, expect to be seeing a lot of Kaya Scodelario.