From the esoteric title onwards, almost everything about Francesca Gregorini’s sophomore feature is awash in a desperate degree of self-consciousness, over-eager for viewers to connect with its mannered style of storytelling, which while visually enticing, falls flat in just about every other area.
Emanuel (Kaya Scodelario) is your typical downtrodden, misery-laden teen who can’t find it in herself to get on with her stepmother (Frances O’Connor) and her browbeaten dad (Alfred Molina). Since young, Emanuel has been embittered about the childbirth death of her mother, and is clearly yearning for some sort of maternal figure who she can relate to.
This figure arrives in the way of her new neighbour, Linda (Jessica Biel), who is a single mother with a baby daughter named Chloe. The two become fast friends when Emanuel, entirely out of character, offers to help babysit, and girded by some queasy sexual tension in the film’s opening stages, it seems like this might end up as something more.
Elsewhere, Emanuel connects with a local boy named Claude (Aneurin Barnard) who she meets on the train and begins a relationship with, and just as things seem to settle down, Emanuel discovers something disturbing about Linda that changes everything she knows.
It’s at this point that Emanuel and the Truth about Fishes really goes off the deep end, enthusiastically fleeing from harmlessly meandering to flat-out clueless. Once the film’s main conceit reveals itself, things are taken far too seriously and the result is that viewers may find themselves tittering over what is less a tragic examination of mental health issues and more the stagy theatrics of a campy horror farce.
If there’s something good to say about the film, it’s that the actors deserve a much better script. Even Biel, who has been utterly forgettable in almost everything she’s starred in to date, excels in one of her more daring, less-glamorous performances. Alfred Molina meanwhile proves to be potent backup in a limited role, but most eyes will be on Scodelario, best known to Brits as mainstay Effy on the TV show Skins.
It’s a fine enough performance and a sure step up for her CV, but the risible dialogue she and the rest of the cast are forced to breathe life into does them few favours. One memorable moment in which Emanuel chides Claude for not being on the same train as her – despite her taking an early train without telling him – seems inane rather than cutesy. Do these people not text each other? Of course, that would be too easy.
Though it’s a well-shot indie with solid special effects work – employed during several surreal scenes that break with reality – it all seems wasted on such insistently obtuse material; there’s little rhyme or reason to the phantasmagorical visuals we’re watching, and so it’s difficult to connect with them emotionally.
When it’s not busy tripping itself up tonally, the barmy premise is oddly forgettable, making this a rare curio you won’t remember for long. The irony is that in playing its silly premise dead straight, the film becomes a goldmine of unintentional hilarity.
Emanuel and the Truth about Fishes premiered at Sundance London last week.
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