By Keith R Higgons
Movies are about suspension of reality, well the best ones are. I can’t say that Francesca Gregorini’s film Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes is one of the best ones, but it is pretty damn good.
Here’s the synopsis:
Emanuel, a troubled girl, becomes preoccupied with her mysterious new neighbor, who bears a striking resemblance to her dead mother. In offering to babysit her neighbor’s newborn, Emanuel unwittingly enters a fragile, fictional world and becomes its gatekeeper.
Yep, it is your standard indie fare. Writer/Director Francesca Gregorini and Cinematographer Polly Morgan have created a deft ambiance that embraces the viewers like a well worm blanket. From the beginning, despite what happens, we know it’s going to eventually be OK.
The film is almost devoid of all modern appliances like smart phones, computers, and televisions. The only real signs of modernity are mass transit and one lone car, an old Volvo 240. Without the modern distractions, it lets us now that Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes is about characters and story, there’s a novel idea.
One Sunday three or four years ago, I went on a Netflix binge of the British drama “Skins” and was floored by all of the performances. As I poked around to find out who the hell this Kaya Scodelario, who plays Emanuel, was. I quickly discovered she was one of the leads on the British “Skins.” Turns out, the show was a breeding ground for extraordinary young talent, Nicholas Hoult (Warm Bodies, the Mad Max reboot, the upcoming X-Men, and yes, the kid from About a Boy), Joe Dempsie (HBO’s Game of Thrones), Dev Patel (HBO’s The Newsroom, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) are some of that cast that have since made the transition to Hollywood. I suspect we will soon be adding Scoldelario to that list.
In Gregorini’s Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes, Kaya Scodelario delivers a simply stunning performance as the 17-year-old Emanuel. Here the British actress dons an American accent to play the snarky teen who struggles with her life because her mother died during her birth. While we’re introduced to her in voice over and this is a little silly. However, once we get by that, we can’t help but immediately be taken in by Emanuel’s charm. The voice over simply lets us know that we’re about to encounter a brash and snarky lead character.
As Emanuel, Scodelario plays her with empathy well beyond the characters 17 years, but it works. Again, it’s a movie, so we must suspend reality. Some of her laser sharp one liners are unbelievable, but her delivery allows us to shrug that off. The fact that we can ignore some of Emanuel’s aplomb is a compliment to both the performance and direction. As the namesake of the movie, she is in almost every scene and carries the story flawlessly. A story driven movie like this demands an exceptional performance and Kaya Scodelario does just that.
Jessica Biel is in the throes of a Hollywood trajectory that, unless she manages it well, could very easily erase the talent she has. Earning her wings (pardon the pun), and tabloid star, on the extremely under appreciated WB series “7th Heaven” she has gone on to star in a number of big Hollywood movies; the types of which punch lines and car explosions are more important than dialog. Like Ulee’s Gold and Elizabethtown before, Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes is the type of character driven movie where Jessica Biel shines. Her performance here as Linda, the neighbor with the secret, shows exactly why she is in that Hollywood trajectory (I just hope it doesn’t land her on “Dancing with the Stars”).
When Linda first shows up, before she even utters a line, you notice her wardrobe. Biel is attractive to begin with but here the loose, flowing, beautiful and bohemian (apparently, the one product placement is Free People clothing…that’s a joke) clothes add to her natural beauty and add an element of ethereal quality to the character of Linda. Biel plays Linda like she wears the clothes, loose, earthy, real and beautifully.
Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes also stars Alfred Molina as Dennis, Emanuel’s father. Alfred Molina is Alfred Molina, he could read YouTube comments and I would pay attention. He’s brilliant. Always.
Perpetual scene stealer and all around go to guy for any genre, Jimmi Simpson plays Arthur, Emanuel’s dorky friend at her medical supply/pharmacy job. Here Simpson has shed his Liam Mcpoyle robe (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) and is wearing his big boy clothes and his drama cap, along with his Warby Parkers. As Arthur, it is his job to play the lone “bad” guy in the movie. And he is anything but a “bad guy.” Arthur eventually goes on a date with Linda. At the end of this date, with Emanuel downstairs listening to the baby monitor, it is Arthur who tasked with informing Linda of just how crazy she is.
It’s a scene that works so well you’ll get cranky about how it emotionally disrupts you. In just a short time, you’re emotions will be righted again. It’s that warm blanket that Gregorini sets up early in the film coming to cover you. That little emotional pinball game is not easy to pull off and is evidence that everyone involved in this film brought their A game.
So, what is the truth about fishes? I honestly do not know. I’m flummoxed as to the metaphorical significance of the title. I’ll leave that for the smarter folks.
So what makes Emanuel so protective over Linda’s craziness? I’m not telling.
I will tell you Emanuel refuses to bond with her stepmother but has such a longing for a mother figure that she embraces Linda, who resembles her own mother. I will tell you Linda’s crazy is revealed fairly early as Emanuel and she are developing their friendship. Emanuel first ignores the crazy and then teeters on embracing it, completely cognizant that she is jeopardizing her own sanity.
The ending is exceptionally beautiful as both Emanuel and Linda are able to bury their respective pain and crazy. Indeed, the scenes leading to that beautiful moment once again require that suspension of reality, but if you can do that, you will be rewarded.
There is a scene shortly after the “crazy” reveal, and before the ending, between Emanuel and Dennis where he firmly says to her “Emanuel, you don’t know what is in other people’s hearts!” She quickly replies “No I don’t but I know what is in mine.” I know it sounds cheesy and in lesser hands than Molina and Scodelario’s it wouldn’t work. But Emanuel’s simple retort is so truly moving. It makes you wonder if only more people stopped trying to think about what others may think and may do and were focused on, and motivated by, what is in their own hearts, how much better off we would be.
Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes is one of those films that no major studio would make. And that is sad. It’s one of those movies that movie buffs and saps, like me, tend to enjoy. It’s also one of those movies the re-charges me and makes me realize that there are really talented film makers like Francesca Gregorini out there creating. It’s one of those movies that force you to forget the dreck that some of these performers have been in and reminds you that they are where they are because they are talented (and not necessarily who they are married to). It’s one of those movies that, if you can, you should see.
Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes concluded its Brooklyn Film Festival run last night.