The Truth About Emanuel is sublime for its first few moments. Light slices through water, and we hear the voice of Emanuel, a beautiful teenage girl, who’s enveloped in her life’s great tragedy: the death of her mother.
The 17-year-old (played by the British actress Kaya Scodelario) tells us in what seems monologue after monologue that she killed her mom, and that she’s “not supposed to be here.” Her mom died giving birth to her, and girl blames herself, going so far as to say she’s a murderer.
Although the teen appears bookish (she’s certainly a smart-ass), she doesn’t seem to get that murder requires premeditation. We can forgive her this, but her pretentiousness eventually makes her into a heroine who’s hard to give two teardrops about. She’s so fixated on the mystery of her mother — the desire to know her, to be raised by her — that she’s kind of boring.
But when a beautiful, wraith-like young mother named Linda (Jessica Biel) moves in next door, Emanuel surprises her father and stepmom when she offers to babysit for the new neighbor, who looks a good deal like her dead mother. A few days later, she discovers that something is seriously wrong with this woman and her little girl. Although Emanuel is initially startled by the revelation, she chooses to say nothing to anyone about the problem.. She thereby enables it, so as not to expose Linda to reality, which Emanuel knows only to be cruel and lonely and full of disappointment.
Linda’s problem with her daughter mirrors Emanuel’s fixation on the death of her mother, and the two troubled souls form a semi-erotic, mother-daughter bond. The experiment of drowning out reality works for a time, but it’s doomed to failure, just as Linda’s issue with her baby is doomed to be exposed by someone less self-interested than Emanuel.
At times, this threat of exposure gives the The Truth About Emanuel the feel of a thriller. At such heightened moments, Emanuel finds herself in a dreamscape: one in which scenes from her everyday life — bedrooms, train cars, hallways — are flooded with water. Writer/director Francesca Gregorini tries to use these images as a metaphor for Emanuel’s connection with death, but it comes off as having more visual power than actual poetry. And that’s not saying much.
What’s perhaps most disappointing is that the “truth” in the title isn’t ever realized. The watery poetics give us a vague notion of Emanuel’s reality, and the tear-filled finale just takes whatever sentiment the film might have inspired and turns it all wishy-washy. The problem isn’t the actors’ performances so much as everything else: the conceit that fizzles out, the writing the flounders, and the suburban America that looks nothing like our own. Case in point: our angsty upper middle class girl, who looks like an Anthropologie model, don’t appear to own a cell phone.