“The Girl in the Book” zigzags absorbingly back and forth in time to weigh the impact on a young woman of her formative relationship with a much older writer — one he used as fodder for the roman a clef that defined his career. Less flamboyant a take on a somewhat predatory mentor/muse attachment than Audrey Wells’ “Guinevere” (1999), and all the more subtly rewarding for it, Marya Cohn’s debut feature is perhaps a longer shot commercially for also being less titillating. But it merits consideration from niche distributors willing to carefully nurse a film that would benefit from outreach to local literary communities. Freestyle Releasing plans a limited theatrical bow this December, with Myriad Pictures handling other U.S. formats.
Approaching 30 with no great pleasure, Alice (Emily VanCamp) is a native Manhattanite whose life looks glamorous and privileged from the outside, but frustrates her on nearly every front. She works ostensibly as a junior editor for a stereotypically obnoxious boss (Jordan Lage) who treats her like a secretary/gofer at a publishing house, ignoring all pleas for more challenging work as well as her advocacy for an unknown scribe’s exceptional manuscript.
It’s a taken-for-granted status she’s familiar with: Her father, Ben (Michael Cristofer), is a famed, semi-retired literary agent and pompous tastemaker whose idea of good parenting often turns out to be poaching his own daughter’s ideas. Her mother (Talia Balsam) got left behind long ago in Dad’s womanizing career. In her own hapless, lower-case way, Alice replicates that track record via drunken one-night stands that ensure she won’t meet her own yearnings for emotional stability. The only person providing that is best friend Sadie (Ali Ahn), but she’s too busy with a husband and child to keep providing a shoulder for Alice to cry on. She does provide something potentially better, however, by introducing Alice to the attractive Emmett (David Call), a political activist who just might be the ticket to overcoming her perpetual romantic self-sabotage.
What Alice would really like to do is write, but she’s blocked for reasons we gradually realize have dogged fully half of her life. At 15 (played by Ana Mulvoy-Ten in flashbacks), the needy, insecure heroine was befriended by her father’s latest protege, Milan (Michael Nyqvist), an expat scribe probably three times her age. He encouraged her creativity, but also wheedled his way into her trust for questionable motives, ending in betrayal.
That humiliation has never left her, and now it’s come back full force: The publishing house Alice works for is reissuing the very tome that exploited (albeit in fictive form) her real-life seduction and abandonment, becoming a cult classic whose success Milan has never equaled since. Being thrown back into his ever-creepily-insinuating orbit is the last thing she needs, though that experience does help trigger to a slightly pat yet satisfying catharsis here in Cohn’s generally astute screenplay.
Recalling not just “Guinevere” but the Parker Posey segment of Rebecca Miller’s “Personal Velocity,” “The Girl in the Book” trades in potential cliches of bohemian artistic sexploitation and New York art-scene pretentiousness, but soft-pedals those and other aspects with an insider’s knowingness. It certainly helps that Cohn handles all the performers very deftly, from small roles to Nyqvist’s key one, which the actor pulls off in such a way that we’re never fully sure whether Milan is a methodical predator or simply too self-absorbed to recognize the damage he inflicts. VanCamp (of TV’s “Revenge,” “Brothers & Sisters” and “Everwood”) makes insecure Alice easy to identify with even when her actions make her less-than-easy to like.
The assured but unshowy package is particularly complemented by Jessica Brunetto’s editing and Will Bates’ score, among other factors that lend the film’s overall impact the alert observational intelligence of a first-rate short story.