It’s to our benefit that Skins and Wuthering Heights actress Kaya Scodelario stepped in to play Emanuel, a surly young woman weeks away from her 18th birthday. Living with her father (Alfred Molina) and kindly stepmother (Frances O’Connor), Emanuel is haunted by the knowledge that her mother died during childbirth. Spiteful without being overtly rude, she taunts her stepmother and punishes her father, and only the teenage Claude (Aneurin Barnard) who shares her bus journey sparks any affection and humour in the girl.
Emanuel’s emotional turmoil comes to a head when a new neighbour arrives in the form of Jessica Biel’s single mother Linda, who bears a resemblance to the one photo Emanuel has of her mysterious mother. The bohemian, earthy Linda asks Emanuel to babysit her baby daughter Chloe, despite her inexperience, and before long Linda and Emanuel strike up a warm friendship, one in which trust will be tested when a disturbing discovery is made.
As a drama, Emanuel and the Truth about Fishes works well, thanks to the compelling lead performance from Scodelario and her chemistry with Biel (good as the chirpy and involving mother early on, less so when some dramatic weight is required). Gregorini weaves an enchanting spell, using the intuition of her excellent lead actress and creating an atmospheric mood. However, it’s the fantastical elements that are introduced that give the film a quirkier, dreamlike edge the heartbreaking story doesn’t need. They serve to pad out a coming-of-age film that often relies on rudimentary scenes of first dates and strops, but ones that are elevated by some nice touches of humour (thanks to Jimmi Simpson’s supporting role as Emanuel’s co-worker at a medical supply shop).
Following the raw agony of Emanuel’s relationships with the women in her life, and the frankness of its handling of maternal love, the film’s resolution feels unconvincing, and the tone is off; a crass opening line feels at odds with the poetry of the production design, score, and cinematography. It’s still an appealing film, and one that marks Scodelario as the next big thing.