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Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes

Sundance 2013 Review

MRB Productions/Pisces Rising Production; 96 minutes

Director: Francesca Gregorini

Written by on January 28, 2013 

Against all odds, Francesca Gregorini‘s Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes swims in a bevy of indie film clichés and emerges mostly unscathed, building a quite strange, dynamic narrative about mothers and their daughters.

Kaya Scodelario plays Emanuel, a beautiful teenager still coping with her mother’s death. She died giving birth to Emanuel. What results is a wise-cracking daughter with a morbid fascination with death, something her father (Alfred Molina) and new stepmother (Frances O’Connor) can’t quite wrap their head around.

Cue Linda (a very game Jessica Biel), the entrancing, new next-door neighbor. She is also a doppelganger for Emanuel’s dead mother. The young woman takes an immediate interest, volunteering to serve as babysitter for Linda’s new-born baby Chloe.

What follows is a mystical family drama with some bold creative turns, forcing Biel to stretch some dramatic chops she has yet to showcase. That said, the real star is Scodelario. While the young actress gave a stong, raw performance in Andrea Arnold’s adaptation of Wuthering Heights, she stands out here, navigating the relatable emotions of adolescence with the more fantastical turns her character is forced to take in the third act.

Gregorini – offering up her second feature here following the Rooney Mara-led drama Tanner Hall – is quickly establishing herself as a fresh, new voice in filmmaking. Her confidence behind the camera elevates some of the potentially overwrought material here, allowing the characters and themes to ring true.

There are some beautiful visual arrangements here, the stand-out a dream sequence in which Emanuel glides underwater searching for both her mother and Linda’s baby. Accented by a wondrous score from Nathan Larson, the scene works to mend both Emanuel’s two world – the real and the imagined – together. And if it be a means of creatively force-feeding symbolism and purpose, Fishes looks very good while doing it.

Molina anchors the most emotionally-devastating exchange in the film, Emanuel – on her birthday no less – asking her father to recall the events leading up to her mother’s death in excruciating detail. When the recollection concludes, he asks her, “Do you do this to punish me?” We see the father in the actor’s eyes, and it’s heartbreaking. For whatever reason, Molina has been relative absent of notable performances lately, making this winner of a supporting turn something of a relief. The superb character actor is still the best in the business. Along with the rest involved, he elevates the subject matter and makes it something that feels more important.

And if, by the climax, you find yourself rolling your eyes, it wouldn’t be without reason. With every passing minute, the narrative becomes less drama and more fairytale. But then it never promised to be anything else. Perhaps if there had been a “Once Upon A Time…” at the beginning, it would have been more appropriate.


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