There’s a good film somewhere in “The Truth About Emanuel,” but unfortunately, you won’t find it in this muddled hour-and-a-half of tired movie tropes and big ideas gone haywire. Tossing around plot twists and clunky dialogue absent of any sensible logic or reason, what once appears to be a Stepford-esque horror story soon turns into a meditation on grief, completely devoid of any actual emotion.
Not to say “Emanuel” is a disaster by any means, largely thanks to Kaya Scodelario’s commendable leading turn as precocious, promiscuous teenager Emanuel, who wallows in guilt because her mother died in childbirth – a memory that only becomes more painful as her 18th birthday rolls around. Moody and sometimes venomous with her words, Emanuel has a strained relationship with her father (Alfred Molina) and chipper stepmother (Frances O’Connor), and finds difficulty connecting with anybody, save for an awkward love interest, Claude (Aneurin Barnard), that she meets on the train.
That all changes when she’s introduced to her next-door neighbor, Linda (Jessica Biel), and begins looking after her infant, Chloe. We quickly learn that this is no infant but a baby doll that Linda treats as an actual child, which puzzles Emanuel but doesn’t stop her from taking care of Chloe and protecting Linda’s secret.
Despite an oftentimes-laughable script from director Frances Gregorini (“Tanner Hall”) and Sarah Thorp, the film works to some degree thanks to Scodelario’s fully committed performance. She appears to be the only actor that brings any hint of nuance to her character and show that there’s more going on inside her eyes than what the clumsy dialogue may let on. She’s bound to become a breakout star in no time, but like the 2011 “Wuthering Heights” adaptation (in which she delivered a touching performance as the older Cathy), Scodelario has simply not been given a strong enough vehicle to showcase the full range of her talents.
Biel, regrettably, does not have the chops to deliver any more than a caricature with Linda, failing to elevate her mentally unstable, sometimes ridiculous character to one that is genuinely sympathetic. She is done no favors by the unfounded accusations and melodramatic declarations that attempt to propel the film forward and heighten the drama. Emanuel has a lesbian crush on Linda! Linda’s husband tried to get her committed to a mental hospital before she ran off! Emanuel is breaking up with Claude because, you know, he wants to do landscaping for Linda? The heavy-handed symbolism and sing-songy nature of the voiceovers add to the fact that this doesn’t feel like the work of a mature filmmaker, but the sort of grab bag of half-baked ideas one might find in a college screenwriting class.
To the film’s credit, the soundtrack is quite nice and there are some beautifully composed, oftentimes haunting shots. But at the end of the day, the film’s high ambitions ultimately amount to nothing. Sure, it’s not a terrible way to spend a Sunday afternoon when there’s nothing else to watch on video-on-demand (or on Redbox, when it eventually makes its way there). But while one tries to admire Gregorini for attempting something different, we’d definitely be seeing “The Truth About Emanuel” on a number of “worst of” lists around this time, had it been a higher-profile picture that received a wide release sometime last year. Instead, it will likely fall off the radar before it really ever hops on, which is probably for the best.
‘The Truth About Emanuel’ opens in at Harkins Shea 14 in Scottsdale on Friday, Jan. 10. The film is also available on video-on-demand and iTunes. For more information, visit http://tribecafilm.com/tribecafilm/filmguide/truth-about-emanuel.