The Truth About Emanuel is a soporific drama about a bond that forms between the titular teenager (Kaya Scodelario) and the next-door neighbor who hires her to babysit her imaginary newborn daughter. The “daughter”—a plastic doll that earthy Linda (Jessica Biel) treats like a real baby—is meant to be the focal point of the characters’ shared sense of loss, but instead becomes an unintentional metaphor for Francesca Gregorini’s artificial, symbolism-choked script.
Metaphors are tools meant to be used; when left idle, they come across as affectations. Gregorini confuses coded meaning with meaningfulness, peppering the movie with water-birth imagery (the film premiered at Sundance under the title Emanuel And The Truth About Fishes) and mother/daughter figures. A single theme—trauma leads people to retreat into their imaginations—is introduced early on. Instead of developing it, the movie reiterates this truism again and again until its shallowness becomes apparent. The result plays like bad poetry, eager to fool around with symbols, but unable to use them complexly or to realize their transformative potential.
Linda’s doll and Emanuel’s visions of rising water are expressions of anxiety, relating to their identities as, respectively, a mother without a daughter and a daughter without a mother. (Emanuel’s mother died in childbirth, a fact that the movie introduces via some of the most cringe-inducing voiceover narration in recent memory.) The problem is that, aside from these single anxieties, there isn’t much to these two characters or their relationship. Linda is one-note, cheerfully unaware of—or unwilling to acknowledge—her insanity. She is fixated on the naptime-and-diapers business of motherhood in a way that suggests programmed behavior instead of some complex underlying personal trauma.
Emanuel herself is less a character than a collection of common narrative crutches: “alienated arthouse protagonist with mysterious motivations,” “quippy screenwriter in a teenager’s body,” and so on. She can be aggressive and smart-alecky in one scene, and paralyzingly non-confrontational the next. Her actions are largely nonsensical, and serve only to set up and sustain the plot—which wouldn’t be an issue if the movie weren’t specifically about her emotions.
This makes The Truth About Emanuel a psychological character study without much in the way of psychology or character. Unable to create emotional tension, it instead opts for obliqueness—which can be tantalizing, but only if there’s something worthwhile hidden underneath. In this case, there isn’t. Instead, the movie comes across as evasive, repetitive, and, eventually, more than a little dull.