Saturday movie review: 'The Truth About Emanuel'

THE TRUTH ABOUT EMANUEL is a wholly original and unpredictable film on grief and the stories that keep us afloat. Emanuel's story is that she killed her mother. Or that's how Emanuel (Kaya Scodelario) puts it in the voice-over in the movie's first scene.

As the dark film begins, it's days before Emanuel's eighteenth birthday. Emanuel detests birthday celebrations, though, because her mother died giving birth to her. Her combative attitude through much of the film makes it seem she detests far more than just her birthdays, including herself.

The Truth About Emanuel
(from left) Kaya Scodelario and Jessica Biel in THE TRUTH ABOUT EMANUEL.

Emanuel lives with her father (Alfred Molina) and a stepmother she treats horribly. She seems fragile and ready to come undone any moment. The situation — and Emanuel's psychological state — take a complex turn for the worse when a young mother (played by Jessica Biel) moves in next door. It's a dark tale with twists and turns and, surprisingly, many well-placed moments of levity.

An excellent trailer, but don't think you know the story for it's so very much not what you expect. At least it wasn't what I expected. Based on the heavy silence of the movie theater come the final credits, I'd say those who screened this haunting film with me at the Starz Denver Film Festival felt the same. That silence stayed with me all the way home from the movie theater — an hour-long drive in which I didn't turn on the radio as I usually do but spent the drive digesting the painful themes of THE TRUTH ABOUT EMANUEL and the suspense and sadness of the spectacular story line.

What I enjoyed most about the film: Kaya Scodelario, in her breakout role, is impossible to take your eyes off. She's a perfect combination of bold and broken topped off with a certain creepiness that keeps you wondering what the heck she's up to. Jessica Biel provides a stellar performance as the young mother with an unimaginable secret.

What most made me a fan of this film is that as you watch, you're truly unsure of where things will lead, what is truth and what is fantasy. But not in the "I hope this makes sense in the end" way of some films. The unpredictability here is intriguing, not confounding. There were several moments when I thought, "Ah, so here's the final scene," then there'd be another scene... and another. I'm thankful the filmmakers didn't take the easy way out with some artsy-fartsy ambiguous ending. THE TRUTH ABOUT EMANUEL had a creepy yet fully satisfying ending.

What I didn't love so much: I was pleased by the appearances of two likeable characters from two series I enjoy — Jimmi Simpson who played Lloyd on "Breakout Kings" and Sam Jaeger who plays Joel on "Parenthood." Though both did great with their parts, I was disappointed they played characters rather similar to their series roles. I'd like to see both play against type, show their acting chops I know are there (especially Jimmi Simpson). Perhaps Jessica Biel and her strong performance will encourage them, too, to pursue roles viewers might not expect to see them play.

THE TRUTH ABOUT EMANUEL, winner of several festival awards and nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance Film Festival 2013, is directed by Francesca Gregorini and opens in theaters January 10, 2014.