PARK CITY — Following up her co-directed Tanner Hall debut, filmmaker Francesca Gregorini returns solo with an accomplished coming-of-age feature that adeptly combines both dramatic and fantasy elements. Gregorini’s assured technique to some extent glosses over a certain lack of narrative focus that may be overlooked by well-meaning audiences drawn into Emanuel and the Truth about Fishes’ predominantly feminine domain. The film will certainly charm on the festival circuit, although theatrical breakthrough will require unconventional marketing to preserve the disconcerting mystery central to the narrative.
Emanuel (Kaya Scodelario), a troubled teen on the brink of adulthood, acts out her disappointment with life by verbally lashing out at those around her, particularly her stepmom (Frances O’Connor) and her beleaguered dad (Alfred Molina). Seemingly blaming everyone around her for the death of her mom during her birth — but herself most of all – she’s a bundle of prickly energy, caustic remarks and verbal provocations, but smart and attractive enough to still command interest.
When new neighbor and single mom Linda (Jessica Biel) moves in next door with infant daughter Chloe, Emanuel uncharacteristically volunteers her help, offering to babysit the woman’s child. Linda is gracious, beautiful and a bit mysterious — characteristics amplified by her resemblance to Emanuel’s late mother, which all fuel the girl’s inherent flair for drama.
After her first few times babysitting seem to go well, even though Emanuel never actually interacts with sleeping Chloe, she begins spending more time with Linda — gardening, cooking and hanging out. Meanwhile, Emanuel begins cryptically flirting with Claude (Aneurin Barnard), a boy who rides the same train on her commute to school, who’s a bit taken aback at first by her inquisitive interest until they actually start dating. When she makes an unexpected discovery about Linda’s baby, however, Emanuel’s natural self-assurance falters, and she must decide whether to go along with the situation and continue assisting her neighbor.
Deciding to enter Linda’s strange world, Emanuel silently consents to protecting the woman’s secret from her parents, friends and outsiders. As she’s drawn deeper into playing out Linda’s fantasy scenario, the connection between the women deepens, even as the stakes increase, particularly when Linda begins dating Emanuel’s co-worker (Jimmi Simpson). Then an unexpected revelation sends the situation spinning out of control, leaving both Emanuel and Linda teetering on the brink of catastrophe.
Emanuel situates Biel in full-on maternal mode, something of a departure for the actress, which she accomplishes rather persuasively. Playing Linda as a warm, open and ultimately very troubled single mother, Biel’s performance firmly anchors the film, until Linda’s life is dramatically cast adrift.
With a number of features and the Skins TV series behind her, Scodelario’s role as Emanuel gives the actress the opportunity to persuasively incorporate elements of magical realism. The water she sees flowing from Linda’s home or the sounds of the ocean she hears emanating from the house send the film ricocheting in unexpected directions, which Scodelario seamlessly incorporates into the character’s unusual point of view. Although the final act tips over into melodrama as confessions are made and tears shed, both actresses are smoothly in synch with one another in both their physical performances and deft line readings.
Gregorini’s script creates an almost entirely feminine world, where the few men present are more like accessories than central players and the women navigate primarily by emotion and intuition. Well-burnished production values, including the silky cinematography, dimensional lighting and lyrically inspired special effects contribute significantly to casting the film’s contemplative spell.
If the sum of these achievements finally falls somewhat short, the fault may lie with an unfocused thematic throughline. Although Gregorini is very clear on where her lead characters are coming from, it’s where they’re headed that remains entirely vague, an oversight that leaves them unfortunately adrift.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival, U.S. Dramatic Competition
Production companies: MRB Productions and Pisces Rising Productions
Cast: Jessica Biel, Kaya Scodelario, Alfred Molina, Frances O’Connor, Aneurin Barnard, Jimmi Simpson
Director-writer: Francesca Gregorini
Producers: Francesca Gregorini, Matt R. Brady
Executive Producers: Jonathan Gray, Paul Schiff, Kenny Goodman, Kevin Iwashina, Michael Sackler, Julia Godzinskaya, Alex Sagalchik, Alice Bamford, Brent Stiefel, Olga Segura, Juan Carlos Segura
Director of photography: Polly Morgan
Production designer: Anne Costa
Costume designer: Erica Nicotra
Music: Nathan Larson
Editor: Antony Langdon
Sales: Preferred Content
No rating, 96 minutes