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Hopeful but uninspired novelist Alice Harvey (Emily VanCamp) has lived in the shadow of her pompous but highly successful literary agent father (Michael Cristofer), working as a junior editor for an overbearing, belittling boss (Jordan Lage) at a publishing house. She is numb and directionless, finding solace in drunken one-night stands as she copes with the oppressive memories of a writer named Milan (Michael Nyqvist), a man in his late thirties her father introduced her to when she was in high school (played young by Ana Mulvoy-Ten). Milan toyed with Alice’s emotions and writing creativity, eventually betraying her with a fictitious account of that experience and Alice’s coming of age in a book that became an underground classic that now is being reissued and put in Alice’s hands for marketing.
The film is told as a side-by-side present day and flashback story that mostly seamlessly links these two narratives, the younger theme adding depth to the older. The secret weight Alice carries as a nearly 30-year-old woman leaves her burdened and unsatisfied, the scars deeper than she seems aware but more so obvious as she recalls her past. Bitter but weakened, she absorbs the misery and confusion and pacifies her ache with meaningless sex, if for anything, just to feel something. Addicted to the cycle, it blinds her rationally, effectively leaving a wake of destruction.
Written and directed by Marya Cohn, The Girl in the Book is a gentle work that is filled with a personal passion that strikes with a measured intensity. The film is dark but not unhopeful. It plays in vignettes that portend to a greater promise, occasionally drifting into contrivance, but mostly feels authentic. The tapestry of flashbacks are never interruptive and in fact, as the film progresses, becomes so fluid they are reflections of each other. The story is distinctly Alice’s and so some excesses and appropriate corners are sharpened, but that doesn’t diminish the impact. We are meant to linger in her affected memories and Cohn does a good job of keeping us challenged and engaged.
Both VanCamp and Mulvoy-Ten are genuinely moving. Mulvoy-Ten is frightfully good as a girl unsure of her boundaries, misled by the men in her life, invisible to her father and effortlessly manipulated by the man she most trusts. There is a monumentally powerful moment when the older man she is mentored by takes from her a gift he has no right to steal that is one of the most devastating moments I’ve ever seen and is so profoundly personal it aches to watch. Cohn rightly keeps her camera exactly where it needs to be and forces us to face this girl alone in a long, affecting, uninterrupted shot. Mulvoy-Ten is simply heartbreaking.
VanCamp doesn’t miss a beat either, plain and sunken, she keeps Alice well cocooned and while we sense the butterfly is ready to be free, she remains layered in walls so thick she can sometimes barely move. When she meets a young man named Emmett (David Call), she recognizes his sincerity, and while we as the audience might pause at the obvious Knight in shining armor trope, Cohn wisely strips him of that role and lets Alice face real, adult consequences. She is her own worst monster, and no Knight will come to save her. VanCamp is stirring and impassioned. Her vulnerability feels earned. It’s a tender performance.
Quiet, short, and refreshingly under-dramatized, The Girl in the Book is a competently made film that rightfully avoids the heavy plumes and manipulative garnishes of most modern romantic dramas, allowing the story to be less about a boy meeting a girl and more about a girl truly meeting herself and how that evolution changes everything around her. This is a wonderful little film.
Movie description: The Girl in the Book is a 2015 drama about a young book editor who is forced to confront a troubling chapter from her past when a bestselling author re-enters her life.
Director(s): Marya Cohn
Actor(s): Emily VanCamp, Michael Nyqvist, Ana Mulvoy-Ten