Offbeat, but also frequently off-key and somewhat off-putting, Francesca Gregorini’s “Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes” comes up with a mightily strained framework to deal with the grief of familial loss: the friendship between a sullen motherless teen and a woman mothering a rather singular child. Played flatly head-on with some poetic pretensions, the concept never becomes particularly credible or appealing. Pic is unlikely to find much critical support, let alone an audience beyond the fest circuit, but the presence of Jessica Biel will at least make it viable as a download title.
Emanuel (Kaya Scodelario, from the recent “Wuthering Heights”) is a mildly antisocial teen with a big chip on her shoulder: Her mother died giving birth to her, an event she describes in an ungainly opening voiceover that also somehow includes the image of a delivery doctor masturbating. Blaming herself as “a murderer without a motive,” she vents her anger at everyone else, notably her father (Alfred Molina) and stepmom (Frances O’Connor), spitefully rejecting any maternal overtures. Yet she becomes fixated on Linda (Biel), a diaphanous earth-mother type who moves in next door with little Chloe.
Volunteering for babysitting duties, Emanuel fast discovers that the “baby” is in fact an expensively crafted facsimile doll that apes the weight and feel of real infants. Suppressing initial horror, she decides to protect Linda by perpetuating her delusion, which is difficult, in that Linda doesn’t seem to think other people will notice Chloe’s plastic nature, and folks like Emanuel’s stepmom are clamoring to meet the wee newcomer.
Little of this is convincing, least of all a supposedly healing resolution. Gregorini and story co-creator Sara Thorp’s conceit might possibly have tried a more fablelike presentation, but the film founders on the rocky shores of shallow psychological realism buffeted by forced flights of verbal and visual (CGI-assisted) poesy.
While Linda remains a cipher, and the few other characters are one-dimensional, the biggest problem is Emanuel. We’re meant to feel her pain, but as written and played, she’s so consistently snippy and rude — even toward the perfect tousle-haired, puppy-eyed potential b.f. (Aneurin Barnard) she meets sharing public transit — that she is more a source of pain herself.
Gregorini’s first feature (following 2009’s middling “Tanner Hall,” co-directed with Tatiana von Furstenberg) is accomplished in assembly, even if some design decisions underline an overall sense of preciousness.