When scouting the line up of Sundance films to cover, I couldn’t tell you what caught my eye about this one. It wasn’t the glittering “Jessica Biel” or “Alfred Molina” names or even the plot line itself, which was left surprisingly vague. I began setting up interviews with filmmakers and remembered Rooney Mara’s producing credit on this one. I’ve always been a huge advocate of her work, and where her work is taking her, and I’ll shamelessly say perhaps she was the one who made me give Emanuel and second look.
Director and writer Francesca Gregorini is at Sundance for the first time, and after working with Mara on Tanner Hall, is now debuting this sophomore effort. I always love to bite into a juicy, new female filmmaker. I set up an interview, studied her body of work and sat down to watch the premiere. But the refreshing thing was, that unlike the rest of my film line-up, I had no expectations. Perhaps that’s why the film so easily breathed into my system.
Emanuel (Kaya Scodelario) is the girl on the playground who fell and refused a helping hand to get back up. She’s been dusting off her pants and cleaning her own scrapes and bruises her whole life. Her mother lost her life the moment she gained her own, and since then, Emanuel has felt indebted. To the universe? To her mother? She’s not quite sure. But, somehow, she drifts through life unattached to many emotions or people. At first, you could categorize her as the “angsty teen,” but she has a wit and wisdom far beyond her years. Her sorrow has matured her, yes, but also gifted her with a wonderful sense of humor. She’s feisty and it’s what keeps the film afloat.
When a beautiful and mysterious young woman, Linda (Jessica Biel), moves in next door, Emanuel can’t help but spy. She has the same brunette bangs and elegance Emanuel imagined her mother to posses. Linda also has a baby girl, which Emanuel quickly volunteers to baby-sit.
Something about Linda makes Emanuel timid. Perhaps it’s her huge, empty and unpacked Victorian home or maybe it’s her air of loneliness; a curse only a fellow victim could decode.. Emanuel quickly learns her instincts are right and soon begins to look after more than she expected.
The film takes you to an unexpected place. And when that journey began, I was relieved I went into the screening with such little knowledge of its pathway. I told some ladies I met at the shuttle stop they had to see Emanuel. When they asked why, I replied. “Do you have mothers?” They were sold. Ultimately the film explores what it means to have a mother, not have a mother and someday be a mother. I will be surprised if an audience member can’t find relatability in at least one of the three, man or woman.
But what sets Gregorini’s film apart from all others that have explored motherhood, is the way she navigates her character’s psyche. They are constantly perplexing, maddening and also inspiring. We see them reach out when we assumed they were selfish and also refuse to budge when they’re clearly illogical. Gregorini also employs breathtaking imagery. Combining the surreal with the real can be a train wreck, especially when an audience is expected to be emotionally involved. But when water floods Emanuel’s feet and she later swims in it with the fishes, we don’t feel hoaxed. The water means something strongly to her, and in turn, we can interpret it however we like. It’s why “drowning” and “floating” are often on the spectrum of words used to describe immense emotion.
Kaya Scodelario has already been included among countless Sundance rising-star lists and Jessica Biel gives perhaps the performance of her career. Without them, the film simply wouldn’t have worked. Gregorini, like her cast, is fearless. She tells a bold story and if it’s not your style, it’s not your style. If you don’t buy into the characters within the first twenty minutes, you may be lost. But when you do, they truly make you consider: When you can’t save yourself, reach out to save another, and perhaps you may save you both.
Let’s just say I figured this out while cleaning my running mascara up in the bathroom. You got me Gregorini.