What's a domestic melodrama without a mom to kill off, to sicken, to render monstrous or otherwise AWOL?
All of the above loom large in The Truth About Emanuel, a fluttery indie that opens with the grand announcement by the teenage title character — played with an unrelentingly grim stare by Skins veteran Kaya Scodelario — that she's her own mother's "murderer without a motive."
In less inflamed parlance, she means that her mother died giving birth to her. Depending on your tolerance for neurotics, this makes Emanuel either a tragic figure or a real pain in the ass, even by the self-dramatizing standards of adolescence. Since few women die in childbirth these days, it's safe to conclude that we're in the realm of 19th century-style female hysteria, made over with a knowing semiotic gloss by writer-director Francesca Gregorini.
Stalled in her unmediated rage and grief, Emanuel heaps scorn on her perfectly nice father, who's played by an underused Alfred Molina, and on her decidedly un-wicked stepmother (Frances O'Connor), who wants only to be liked, Sally Field-style. But when a new neighbor with an uncanny resemblance to her dead mother announces the need for a babysitter, Emanuel signs on for the job — with zeal.
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Never mind that there's a glaring problem with the baby, or that its mother, Linda, is played by Jessica Biel, improbably buffed and glowing for a harried new single mom. Before it all ends in tears, there will be opera on the soundtrack, plus some gifted if slightly incoherent magic-realist aquatic visuals that bring amniotic fluid unnervingly to mind. Also an abundance of anguished reaction shots, the better to telegraph that behind every misbehaving loony woman lurks a wounded soul.
Inevitably the excess also brings redemption in its wake, but not before we endure wave after wave of self-serious filler. Emanuel goes all out to wreck every relationship with any promise, including a romance with a goodhearted lad (Aneurin Barnard) who comes equipped with stylish if irrelevant French connections.
The Truth About Emanuel would be an enjoyable slice of Gothic horror if it breathed a little easier and offered less thematic messaging; "I don't like people disappearing on me," Emanuel intones at one point. But despite some very welcome black comedy — Jimmi Simpson appears delightfully, but too briefly, as a passive-aggressive co-worker who threatens to unravel the cocoon of delusion in which Emanuel has wrapped herself — the movie, trapped in the weeds of self-pity and skin-deep badassery, never quite earns the sympathy it so strenuously solicits.