Tribeca Film via Everett Collection
Unfortunately saddled with one of those titles that leaves itself open to pun-filled reviews , there's not much truth to be found in The Truth About Emanuel, a film that's sadly unaware with how utterly ridiculous it comes across to the viewer.
The story follows Emanuel (Katia Scodelario), a surly teenager who's closing in on 18, but still feels pangs of guilt due to the fact that her mother died while giving birth to her. She takes out her anger on her new stepmom (Frances O'Connor), and her doting father (Alfred Molina) struggles to understand the fire burning inside his daughter. Emanuel begins to connect with her mysterious new neighbor Linda (Jessica Biel), who Emanuel agrees to babysit for.
The film's twist, which is revealed within the first act of the movie, is that Linda's daughter isn't a real baby, but a doll that Linda thinks is real and is using as a coping mechanism. Not wanting to break the spell that Linda has cast on herself, Emanuel goes along with Linda's psychosis, and what follows is a ridiculous game of "keep away" (or, better put, "pretend the baby is alive") like some twisted, direct-to-DVD sequel of Weekend at Bernie's. Emanuel bends over backwards to prevent anyone to get a glimpse at the plastic baby, and the last hour of the movie feels like a rejected C-plot of the worst mid-'80s sitcom never created.
The film's two protagonists are flip sides of the same grief stricken coin. Emanuel is a daughter riddled with the guilt over killing her mother, while Linda's very being is swallowed up by the loss of her child. The film wants to say some very poignant things about loss and grief, but even without the fake baby plotline flinging the story down into the bowels of unintentional farce, the film's writing is still too blunt and sloppy to express its ideas well. The characters ring false and the script clunks and clatters its whole way through with groan inducing lines. Adding the baby plotline on top of all that ensures that almost nothing in this film that comes off as "true."
There is a film in here somewhere that could have carried the story about the coping mechanisms we build to escape our grief, but The Truth About Emanuel just isn’t self aware enough to know how ridiculous it comes across, and the cast just isn't up to task to sell a dramatic story that could have just as easily worked as the main gag in a backburner SNL skit.
In a post-Harry Potter Avatar and Lord of the Rings world the descriptors "sci-fi" and "fantasy" conjure up particular imagery and ideas. The Hunger Games abolishes those expectations rooting its alternate universe in a familiar reality filled with human characters tangible environments and terrifying consequences. Computer graphics are a rarity in writer/director Gary Ross' slow-burn thriller wisely setting aside effects and big action to focus on star Jennifer Lawrence's character's emotional struggle as she embarks on the unthinkable: a 24-person death match on display for the entire nation's viewing pleasure. The final product is a gut-wrenching mature young adult fiction adaptation diffused by occasional meandering but with enough unexpected choices to keep audiences on their toes.
Panem a reconfigured post-apocalyptic America is sectioned off into 12 unique districts and ruled under an iron thumb by the oppressive leaders of The Capitol. To keep the districts producing their specific resources and prevent them from rebelling The Capitol created The Hunger Games an annual competition pitting two 18-or-under "tributes" from each district in a battle to the death. During the ritual tribute "Reaping " teenage Katniss (Lawrence) watches as her 12-year-old sister Primrose is chosen for battle—and quickly jumps to her aid becoming the first District 12 citizen to volunteer for the games. Joined by Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) a meek baker's son and the second tribute Effie the resident designer and Haymitch a former Hunger Games winner-turned-alcoholic-turned-mentor Katniss rides off to The Capitol to train and compete in the 74th Annual Hunger Games.
The greatest triumph of The Hunger Games is Ross' rich realization of the book's many worlds: District 12 is painted as a reminiscent Southern mining town haunting and vibrant; The Capitol is a utopian metropolis obsessed with design and flair; and The Hunger Games battleground is a sprawling forest peppered with Truman Show-esque additions that remind you it's all being controlled by overseers. The small-scale production value adds to the character-first approach and even when the story segues to larger arenas like a tickertape parade in The Capitol's grand Avenue of Tributes hall it's all about Katniss.
For fans the script hits every beat a nearly note-for-note interpretation of author Suzanne Collins' original novel—but those unfamiliar shouldn't worry about missing anything. Ross knows his way around a sharp screenplay (he's the writer of Big Pleasantville and Seabiscuit) and he's comfortable dropping us right into the action. His characters are equally as colorful as Panem Harrelson sticking out as the former tribute enlivened by the chance to coach winners. He's funny he's discreet he's shaded—a quality all the cast members share. As a director Ross employs a distinct often-grating perspective. His shaky cam style emphasizes the reality of the story but in fight scenarios—and even simple establishing shots of District 12's goings-on—the details are lost in motion blur.
But the dread of the scenario is enough to make Hunger Games an engrossing blockbuster. The lead-up to the actual competition is an uncomfortable and biting satire of reality television sports and everything that commands an audience in modern society. Katniss' brooding friend Gale tells her before she departs "What if nobody watched?" speculating that carnage might end if people could turn away. Unfortunately they can't—forcing Katniss and Peeta to become "stars" of the Hunger Games. The duo are pushed to gussy themselves up put on a show and play up their romance for better ratings. Lawrence channels her reserved Academy Award-nominated Winter's Bone character to inhabit Katniss' frustration with the system. She's great at hunting but she doesn't want to kill. She's compassionate and considerate but has no interest in bowing down to the system. She's a leader but she knows full well she's playing The Capitol's game. Even with 23 other contestants vying for the top spot—like American Idol with machetes complete with Ryan Seacrest stand-in Caesar Flickerman (the dazzling Stanley Tucci)—Katniss' greatest hurdle is internal. A brave move for a movie aimed at a young audience.
By the time the actual Games roll around (the movie clocks in at two and a half hours) there's a need to amp up the pace that never comes and The Hunger Games loses footing. Katniss' goal is to avoid the action hiding in trees and caves waiting patiently for the other tributes to off themselves—but the tactic isn't all that thrilling for those watching. Luckily Lawrence Hutcherson and the ensemble of young actors still deliver when they cross paths and particular beats pack all the punch an all-out deathwatch should. PG-13 be damned the film doesn't skimp on the bloodshed even when it comes to killing off children. The Hunger Games bites off a lot for the first film of a franchise and does so bravely and boldly. It may not make it to the end alive but it doesn't go down without a fight.