In a story that explores how both power dynamics and past traumas can affect the creative process, Marya Cohn’s “The Girl in the Book” is a remarkable, ambitious directorial debut. Emily VanCamp stars as Alice Harvey, a young woman working in the New York publishing industry, and Ana Mulvoy-Ten plays Alice 15 years ago, caught up in a complicated, abusive relationship with an older writer, Milan Daneker (Michael Nyqvist). The fallout from that relationship has followed Alice into her adult life, manifesting itself in her bad habits, writer’s’ block and relationships with men.
It all comes rushing back when Alice has to work on the re-release of “Waking Eyes,” the book that made Daneker famous, in which he captures “the essence of a teenage girl,” a “female Holden Caulfied.” When he re-enters her life, he wants to tenderly reminisce about old times, which is pure hell for Alice. She’s a misanthrope and a bit of a mess, only able to connect with men and “feel real” through sex. As the story from 15 years earlier unfolds in parallel to the present one, we see why. Milan, a client of Alice’s blowhard book agent father (Michael Cristofer), carefully grooms the blossoming writer into a sexual relationship under the guise of offering to help with her writing. Young Alice, neglected by her parents, initiates the tutelage, flattered by his attention, and searching for any kind of love from anyone. But she’s too young and naive to understand what that sets in motion, and Milan takes advantage of her youth and inexperience.
The scenes between young Alice and Milan are uncomfortable to watch, and Cohn lets them play out to their agonizing ends, focusing especially on Alice’s experience of the events. The choice to cast a completely different actress as young Alice, when VanCamp could have passed for her teenage self, works especially to emphasize just how young and innocent she is, and Mulvoy-Ten plays her with a wounded, doe-eyed innocence. Alice is fiercely intelligent and yet she knows nothing at all.
VanCamp plays Alice as a bull in the china shop of her own life, destroying her relationships and her work, until nothing is left and she is alone. We come to understand how she positions herself with men, establishing power dynamics are out of whack, and simply bends to their will. When a new boyfriend, Emmett (David Call), tells her “I like a woman who can succumb,” as a part of a suggestive seduction, and we see the cycle begin anew.
There’s a stylistic motif throughout the film, a breaking of the fourth wall, where Alice gazes directly into the camera, through the point of view of Milan, in meaningful encounters with her both as a teen and adult. When Alice, in her lowest depths, finally gazes back at herself, in the mirror, it’s her breaking point and moment of clarity. She’s no longer the object of someone else’s desire, of someone else’s story, but the subject in her own story, her own life. Cohn manages to explore all of these themes and complex ideas in a way that is clear but subtle, and she creates in Alice a character who is deeply troubled but also incredibly relatable, even when she’s her own worst enemy.
There is one giant misstep in the film, a blemish that seems like a studio note even though this is an indie film. It’s a sappy Hollywood happy ending (involving a blog, ew) that feels completely out of place in this story, which would otherwise be a totally feminist tale about a woman learning to be an individual outside of the shadow of men who have dominated her life. When she changes herself for a man (who is really kind of a jerk) and not for just herself, it dilutes the potency of the message about Alice stepping into her own power.
While that is one mark against “The Girl in the Book,” the film truly is excellent and Cohn’s sensitive and accomplished writing and directing belies her debut status: this seems like the product of a far more experienced storyteller. The two storylines are a lot to weave together and she does so seamlessly; her directing is fluid and creative, enhancing the themes through the film’s style. And the propulsive and anxious score by Will Bates adds to the expression of Alice’s troubled inner life. “The Girl in the Book” is an auspicious debut for Cohn, a showcase for VanCamp’s true acting abilities, and a fascinating feminine story. [B+]