EMANUEL AND THE TRUTH ABOUT FISHES sounds like it could about something religious. It is actually a bold, emotionally involving and intensely satisfying movie about two women who help each other. How bold is it? It opens with its titular heroine – yes, Emanuel (Kaya Scodelario) is a seventeen-year old girl approaching the big one-eight – narrating a crime: she killed her mother. According to her, she cut her open. Emanuel has a life sentence for her crime, which she serves one day at a time, albeit in a big spacious house with her father (Alfred Molina) and stepmother (Frances O’Connor).
Emanuel is a school drop-out who works in a medical supplies store – she asks a male colleague, ‘why don’t you try out the penis pump? Think of it as a way of verifying what you sell.’ She takes the six am metro, on which she spies a boy, Claude (Aneurin Barnard, an Elijah Wood lookalike) with his bag labelled ‘Claude’. (We later learn he lost his other bag and brought into service his old school rucksack.) ‘I have a boyfriend. His name is Claude. I met him on the train. It is serious,’ Emanuel tells father and stepmother at dinner. ‘That’s great,’ says stepmother. Father is less enthusiastic. ‘Hovitos. Three days. We must be cautious.’ He doesn’t say that but I like quoting Alfred Molina’s line from the opening of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, as he spits out the poison.
Father wants Emanuel, who has her name tattooed on her arm – ‘my name is the only thing mother ever gave me’ – to visit the grave. Emanuel isn’t ready. We realise that Emanuel did not consciously kill her mother with her ‘Electra complex’ and all. Her mother, Ava died in childbirth. Emanuel was extracted through caesarean section. For sixteen years, father raised her on his own (we don’t know what he does for a living, but he is obviously wealthy). In the seventeenth, stepmom came on the scene. She makes terrific dishes that Emanuel dismisses.
Through her bedroom window, Emanuel spies a young woman (Jessica Biel) move into the house opposite. She has a baby sling attached to her chest. A cot is moved in piecemeal – the woman supervises this. She is a lone mom looking for a babysitter; Emanuel volunteers. The two strike up a bond, at the same time as Emanuel forms a relationship with her fellow commuter Claude, each whispering outrageous things to the person sitting next to them to free up a seat, like ‘I have head lice’ or ‘I’m her parole officer’. Then there is the big reveal. The young mother has a secret; one which Emanuel feels compelled to keep.
To say any more about the story would spoil the movie. It is not always naturalistic. Emanuel imagines that she hears water rushing in her neighbour’s house and sees water appearing at her feet; the audience has to make a decision whether they should believe in this form of womb-based psychic trauma, especially as the sound of water leads to the big reveal. There is a slow increase of tension as Emanuel feels increasingly more protective of the young mother. It builds to a highly cathartic ending.
Last year’s BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD boasted a similar blend of trauma, fantasy and release. This film is more satisfying because you can believe in the route to catharsis and in the milieu. The performances are impressive. Scodelario plays the teenage scolding wound with a convincing American accent. Jessica Biel is unrecognisable under a wig – not as bad as Kathleen Turner’s hairpiece from 1985’s CRIMES OF PASSION, but it made me think of it. Alfred Molina and Frances O’Connor give sympathetic supporting turns.
On the minus side there is some dodgy CGI, involving the aforementioned fishes and an opening, where the camera emerges from the deep blue towards the reflection of sunlight – probably an arc lamp – that doesn’t bode well. However, EMANUEL AND THE TRUTH ABOUT FISHES – clunky title, affecting film – is well worth a visit. It opens in American cinemas in December, after no doubt gaining enthusiastic nods at festivals, like Sundance London, where this reviewer saw it.
With thanks to Grant Willsea, UCSB for the comment - corrected!