Home Video Hovel: The Truth About Emanuel, by Darrell Tuffs
Francesca Gregorini’s Sundance Grand Jury Prize nominated film, The Truth About Emanuel, is centered on two conflicting personal traumas that collide in deeply emotional and disturbing ways. The film is, at times, a suspenseful and effective thriller, combining competent filmmaking with a small and dark yet somewhat ambiguous plot. At other times, the film trips itself up, becoming too self-aware, increasing its own complexity needlessly.
The Truth About Emanuel follows seventeen-year-old Emanuel as she drowns in the emotional guilt of “killing” her mother in childbirth. During her life, stepmother Janice, of whom she has never developed a steady relationship with, has attempted to fill this gap unsuccessfully. So, when single mother Linda, who looks just like Emanuel’s dead mother moves in next-door, she quickly becomes increasingly intrigued and eager to meet her.
It is at this moment that the film becomes very dark, shifting tones to a more psychologically conflicting mood. Emanuel meets Linda after becoming her babysitter, and as a strong newfound mother/daughter connection is becoming established between them, Emanuel learns the truth about Linda.
Linda’s baby, in fact, turns out to be nothing more than a plastic doll, which she uses to fill a psychological void after the death of her real baby during childbirth. This situation is strange and difficult to overcome at first, but is extremely interesting on its surface. Here, we have a teenager in desperate need of a mother and a mother in desperate need of a child. The two women gain a helpful yet difficult relationship, forming a makeshift family, while pretending to care for Linda’s plastic baby, feeding it, changing its nappy and giving it baths. They both create a situation that, for the short-term, helps them overcome emotional problems and fill holes in their personal development. But ultimately, this void-filler becomes short-lived by the ever-growing suspicions and concerns of Emanuel’s family and friends.
One of the film’s main problems is its difficulty with striking the right mood, or at least, finding one mood which it wants to strike. In its first act, the film frequently uses close-ups and often frames Emanuel in negative spaces of compositions. This increases the film’s style, but does nothing to place the audience any further into the mindset of Emanuel. This is because at this point in the film, we are just beginning to understand her character on a personal level, just beginning to see what sort of person she has become and why. Therefore, offering insightful character close-ups at this point becomes ineffective, and feels overly persuasive in leading its audience to quickly connect with this person that they have only just met on-screen.
This style would have been well suited for the film’s middle section; however, in its second act, the film moves away from this, and starts to offer less character and more suspense, fewer close-ups and more wide shots. Without completely developing an understanding of any character, the film uncovers its twist at a moment that feels rushed, yet couldn’t have happened sooner. This is because the film’s first act is so completely closed off and mysterious, anything to move the film forward in any way feels beneficial.
The character of Emanuel at points becomes unconnected and distant; she makes poor and rude decisions, and owns many lines of dialogue that seem stagy and clunky. This unfortunately does not develop as the film progresses, and by the end, her character arc feels very straight, despite the fact she has been the main part of a devastatingly emotional situation. Most of the film’s other characters follow this lead. And, apart from Emanuel’s father Dennis, who is the film’s most realistic and well-developed character, they all fall victim to one-note stereotypical traits in many scenes throughout the film.
Despite all of this, The Truth About Emanuel does have some redeeming features. Its imagery is beautifully lit in a dark, shadowy and modern light. And its plot can be interesting and moving at times but also tense and thrilling. Some moments that involve potential reactions to the fake baby are truly nerve curling and amazingly awkward in a good way. In these moments, intelligently firm filmmaking skills are expertly used.
But, in the end, it feels like a great amount of talent has been wasted in some of the film’s less effective and more self-aggrandizing scenes. The acting is solid throughout and to a point, allows us to forget some big character holes. The Truth About Emanuel is by no means a hit as a whole, but does show potential future greatness from everyone involved, including director Francesca Gregorini.
(The home video discs include a four-minute interview with Francesca Gregorini, four minutes of deleted scenes and outtakes, as well as the film’s trailer)