AIFF 2013: “Emanuel and the Truth about Fishes” Review – by Daniel Rester

AIFF 2013

Emanuel and the Truth about Fishes Review

by Daniel Rester

            One of the stranger but more beautiful films I had the pleasure of seeing at the 12th Annual Ashland Independent Film Festival was Emanuel and the Truth about Fishes. Written and directed by Francesca Gregorini, the film is full of dark and fascinating passages about loss, motherhood, childhood, and redemption. But the most notable thing about Fishes is Kaya Scodelario’s performance as Emanuel. This actress is a star in the making.

            Fishes explores how Emanuel, a troubled young woman, becomes obsessed with her new neighbor. The neighbor is named Linda (Jessica Biel) and she is an equally-troubled single mother. As the relationship between the two develops, Emanuel begins to discover haunting things about Linda — and finds resemblances of her late mother in the neighbor. Aside from just Linda, though, Emanuel finds herself drawn to Claude (Aneurin Barnard), a young man who she meets on a train. 

            Emanuel lives with her father, Dennis (Alfred Molina), and her step-mother, Janice (Frances O’Connor). Both of them yearn for stronger connections with Emanuel, but struggle to make such connections. Janice becomes further frustrated, and intrigued, after Emanuel becomes so interested in Linda.

Gregorini joined the audience for a Q&A after the film at AIFF 2013.

            Gregorini’s movie is the kind of gem that sneaks up on you and pulls the rug out. The complex relationship between Emanuel and Linda is linked to a major plot twist, so I won’t spoil it. But I will state that Gregorini takes audience members down original and surprising turns. Her screenplay has wit and insight, and an air of audaciousness; Gregorini’s direction is also focused, patiently and meticulously unfolding the story.

            The atmosphere in the film is helped shaped by Nathan Larson’s music score and Polly Morgan’s cinematography. Larson’s music combines hypnotic piano and chanting sounds in order to provide a trance-like effect. Morgan (who has worked with Wally Pfister), however, takes a more subtle approach but winds up delivering a similar effect. Her cinematography is never flashy, but she pays great attention to light and location in displaying everything. She also presents lovely images of dark blue water, one of the film’s motifs.

            As mentioned, though, the real reason to see Fishes is for Scodelario’s performance. Emanuel is fragile and sporadic character, and Scodelario gives her strength, likability, mystery, and vulnerability. The actress balances such features perfectly, allowing Emanuel to come off as strange but completely human – and hitting grace notes along the way.

            While Scodelario is the standout, she is joined by a number of other actors that give strong performances. Biel is simply magnetic as Linda, giving one of her best performances yet; she manages to present Linda as having powerful inner struggles while often not saying much. The always-reliable Molina and O’Connor are also very good as Emanuel’s father and step-mother. And Barnard is charming as Claude – who Emanuel looks to in order to explore connection and sexuality. He and Scodelario have great chemistry, especially in scenes that involve them making weird jokes on a train.

            Fishes is a movie with great parts that winds up just being really good as a whole. After the film’s initial twist, things just get more and more odd as they go along and they don’t always sit comfortably. I’m all for something different, but things felt off in the last twenty minutes or so – with the film lacking a satisfying conclusion in my eyes.

Still, Fishes is bold and mesmerizing, and unlike anything I’ve seen from a drama in a while. It also greatly benefits from the terrific Scodelario. She alone makes it worth it, but there are other things to admire about it as well – though it is not for everyone’s tastes.


Rating: 3 out of 4 stars (Grade Equivalent for Me: B+).

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