LA Film Fest Review: The Girl in the Book, by David Bax
In Marya Cohn’s The Girl in the Book, Emily VanCamp plays Alice, a character who spends most of the first act being dumbstruck by every situation. As we’ll learn, there are reasons for her tendency to mentally shut down but it’s still hard to get on a character’s side when she refuses to let us know anything about her. As it turns out, though, the first act is not Cohn’s biggest problem. Like a student in a screenwriting class, it’s the third act that doesn’t work. Cohn’s solution to her lack of an ending is to switch genres and rely on existing, tired tropes.
The Girl in the Book takes place over two storylines. One focuses on the current-day, late-twenties life of Alice, an editor’s assistant at a book publishing company who has been assigned to assist with the re-release of a popular book from fifteen years ago. The book, it turns out, is the story of a teenage girl and Alice knows the author, Milan (Michael Nyqvist), though she is not eager to spend any time with him. This setup alone should be enough to let you know what the other storyline is. Fifteen years earlier, young Alice (Ana Mulvoy-Ten), daughter of Milan’s literary agent (Michael Cristofer, perfectly embodying a magnificent blowhard), begins weekly writing lessons with Milan. Obviously, she is the inspiration for his novel. Also obvious, despite being danced around in the modern-day thread with lines like, “He hurt you,” is the turn their relationship takes into sexual abuse.
From this, it becomes clear why adult Alice displays so little agency. In many ways, that was stolen from her when she was a girl. So she shuts down, letting people like her father or her boss make decisions or her, or she behaves in ways that seem like the actions of someone else, like sleeping with her friend’s babysitter while he’s supposed to be watching the child. Cohn does her best work in these sorts of scenes, demonstrating how a sexual violation dismembers a person’s spirits, leaving some parts of it outside the self. The Girl in the Book works best as an illustration of the long-term emotional and psychological effects of rape and abuse.
Unfortunately, The Girl in the Book is at its worst in the last half-hour or so, when it aims for resolution of these traumas. It does so by veering into pointed and clunky coincidences and, even worse, by adopting the beats of the lowest romantic comedies. A boyfriend (the reliable David Call from Tiny Furniture and Gossip Girl), becomes a totem for her salvation, despite his own very credible doubts that she is the right person for him. Here, at least, we get to see a gender-swapped version of creepy rom-com stalker behavior with Alice showing up at his apartment and starting a website devoted entirely to him. But what can be said about a movie that suggests the best way to recover from abuse is to start the world’s worst blog?