There is a widely held stereotype that the Sundance Film Festival is just dour, depressing films—dramas about addiction and family dysfunction and infidelity and incest and on and on—and outside of the occasional “Little Miss Sunshine”-type breakout, the festival wouldn’t really hold much interest for a large portion of the viewing public. Of course festivalgoers know this is not the case at all, and if you dig deep enough into any category you’ll find a wide array of films from comedies to dramas to science fiction to any combination thereof. Last year’s U.S. Dramatic competition (known for producing past hits like “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and “Winter’s Bone”) featured a surprising number of comedies, for example, which shows that the programmers are always interested in mixing things up. Unfortunately, if you see enough films at the fest, on occasion you’re bound to get one film that fits the mold of the cliché Sundance film. And in 2013, “The Truth About Emanuel” was one such film.
Kaya Scodelario (probably best known for the U.K. soap “Skins”) stars as Emanuel, a troubled teenager who lives with her father Dennis (Alfred Molina) and stepmother Janice (Frances O’Connor). We’re told through Emanuel’s voiceover that she is responsible for the death of her mother (who died in childbirth) and that guilt is something she carries with her to this day. Like most teenagers, she’s rebellious, but unlike most, she rebels by doing things like telling her stepmother she had a sex dream about her during dinner.
We’ve seen dysfunctional family dinner table scenes countless times before (probably best captured/parodied on the classic SNL sketch “Family Dinner”), and here, shot from low angles with wide angle lenses, this normality is presented as a grotesque farce. But miserable suburban life is interrupted when chic new neighbor, single mom Linda (Jessica Biel), moves in next door. Emanuel picks up a job as a babysitter but soon discovers *spoiler alert* that Linda’s baby died some months ago.
This tragic event has left Linda in some kind of severe psychosis where she refuses to face reality and continues to take care of her imaginary child with breastfeeding, diaper changing and loving it completely. Emanuel, not wanting to break Linda out of this spell, decides to play along. This reveal happens about 30 minutes into the film and the remaining hour is spent like a dark, humorless episode of “Three’s Company” where every time Linda plans to bring the baby outside or invite Emanuel’s parents over to visit, Emanuel rushes in front of the door to stop her with some lamebrained excuse. A variation on these antics play out time and time again as the film drags on towards its inevitable climax. (At some point, her world is going to be shattered.) Along the way, Emanuel picks up a boyfriend (Aneurin Barnard) on the subway and begins to come to life a little bit. There are shades of “Lars & the Real Girl” here, but where that film skewed towards dark comedy (which helped temper its outlandish premise), ‘Emanuel’ is almost completely humorless.
This is the sophomore film from writer/director Francesca Gregorini (“Tanner Hall”) and there are some obvious growing pains. The performances are all pretty good—Alfred Molina in particular does nice work as an abundantly patient father—and a few wide angles aside, the direction isn’t a problem, but the screenplay unquestionably is. Emanuel’s dialogue sounds like Lydia Deetz from “Beetlejuice” as filtered through “Juno,” which is never convincing and always sounds like a screenwriter who hasn’t quite found her voice. There are clichés (“It’s like you live in your own private world”), general frustrations (why on Earth would Molina’s sensible father humor his daughter by continually recounting the story of the day her mother died?) and an overall misunderstanding of her own characters. It’s fairly clear that Biel’s character needs to receive real psychiatric help but the film and filmmaker seem to want to indulge her in the idea that she should be allowed to live in her fantasy world. Unfortunately, as the audience, we cannot. [C-]
This is a slightly edited reprint of our review from the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.