Francesca Gregorini’s The Truth About Emanuel begins with a gruesome misdirection. “I’m 17 years old and I killed my mother,” the film’s eponymous lead (Kaya Scodelario) tells us in voiceover. What she means, however, is that her mother died while giving birth to her, a fact that Emanuel reveals with characteristically overblown language: “I had her sliced open, like a goat for the slaughter, to get me pulled out.” On one hand, the film’s opening sets a melodramatic tone that hardly fades. On the other, it immediately casts doubt on the nature of the truth that the movie’s title refers to: Will it be a revelation, like an actual admission to murder, or is the title as much of a false lead as the movie’s opening line?
Gregorini plays on that ambiguity for much of the film, particularly when a single mother, Linda (Jessica Biel), moves in next door to Emanuel and hires her as a babysitter. A tense score sets up Emanuel’s constant moodiness and her more worrisome hallucinations of rooms slowly filling up with water—a portentous bit of symbolism that points to disturbing things yet to come. But there’s something distinctly disconcerting about Linda as well, and eventually she’s the one who provides the shock. The truth about Linda is that her baby is actually a doll.
This isn’t a ploy on Linda’s part, but actual delusion, and the scenes where Emanuel realizes as much are strong enough in the way they reveal how she’s wracked by a specific internal dilemma: whether to play along with Linda or force her to face reality. At other times, Emanuel’s distress feels too generic. Particularly in her relationship with her boyfriend (Aneurin Barnard) and parents, Emanuel too often seems to be just what her stepmother describes her as: “A confused young girl.” And as Linda points out, “we were all a little confused at that age.”
Ultimately that diagnosis is miscalculated as Emanuel’s problems prove to be more than just a case of teenage angst. But the film’s buildup to Emanuel’s deeper breakdown is clumsy and derailed by an invasive score and tired symbolism (her hallucinations start to feature complete floods). Beyond that, the details about what actually ails Emanuel are cursory. The repeated emphasis put on the source of her problems—her guilt about her mother’s death—only makes it feel like a reductive explanation; it comes off as a crutch for an otherwise under-realized script. What’s missing, in the end, is any provocative or poignant insights into the “truth” about Emanuel; all we get are vague hints.