While the premise of The Girl in the Book reads like an abandoned Lifetime movie script collecting dust in the writers room, the resulting film that director Marya Cohn has shared with the world is anything but absurd. This is primarily due to Cohn’s unapologetic direction and star Emily VanCamp’s equally unapologetic lead performance. Both women demand an audience that respects a woman’s right to be flawed, to be loved, to be emotionally and sexually vulnerable, to be opinionated without the words “bitch” and “uptight” thrown around, and most importantly to not be the victims of their own tragic stories. I’m not certain the movie landscape will embrace this indie character study as much as a more progressive cable network on television might, but hopefully with the right distributor attached The Girl in the Book can stand tall as a stunning debut for a new female voice in Hollywood.
VanCamp plays Alice Harvey, a junior editor at a New York publishing company who ditched her aspirations to become a full-time writer due to an unspeakable incident in her formative years. Nearing her thirties, Harvey realizes that now is the time for mental recuperation and maybe taking a crack at that keyboard she so fears. Before Alice can take the next step towards changing her misanthropic outlook on life, her past comes barreling into her present in the form of prolific fiction author Milan Deneker (Michael Nyqvist). Deneker is preparing to re-release his only international bestseller “Waking Eyes” with the help of Alice’s company, though there’s clearly more to Milan’s motive than a simple career revival. The uncomfortable early interactions between Milan and Alice suggest there’s some bad blood between them, but instead of writing a Taylor Swift song about it, Alice distracts herself with her best friend Sadie (Ali Ahn) and philanthropic boyfriend Emmett (David Call). The love she shares for both is grand and limitless, but even her two biggest support systems can’t fix a trauma that Alice refuses to confront.
Thanks to some insightful flashbacks and fearless acting by Ana Mulvoy-Ten, who plays Alice’s teenage self, we discover a horrific secret that lies at the root of Alice’s adulthood paralysis. Milan, a family friend to Alice’s aloof mother (Talia Balsam) and braggart father (Michael Cristofer), falsified his interest in Alice’s prodigal writing talents as a means to a gross sexual end. Pretending to take her under his wing as a mentor, Milan promised to cultivate her skills so long as she shared her life experience with him on an intimately explicit level. This led to cruel manipulation, child abuse and an appropriation of Alice’s entire teenage existence with the successful release of “Waking Eyes,” a book clearly inspired by Milan’s obsession with Alice.
Through all this tragedy, Cohn and VanCamp never once ask us to pity Alice. In doing so, The Girl in the Book ironically contradicts its own title. Alice is attempting to do all she can to not let that impressionable girl Milan supposedly fell in love with define the person she is today. Be warned: Alice’s methods of purging her demons might outrage and run the risk of abandoning sympathy for this character entirely. And yet, instead of making excuses for her off-the-wall self-destruction, Alice cops to some pretty terrible behavior and is only more human because of it. For instance, I wasn’t super thrilled with the cheesy manner in which Alice went about making amends with her boyfriend, but her good intentions and “mea culpa” attitude made it easier to swallow some of the lows this protagonist sinks to. VanCamp’s likability is aided by having terrific actors to bounce off of – David Call as Emmett plays the believable “nice boyfriend” even better than Jake Lucy in last year’s Obvious Child; Ali Ahn, meanwhile, is the definition of “BFF” as Sadie, someone who isn’t afraid to dish out the hard truth if it means bettering one’s character. Although the role is supporting, Sadie just might be the best Asian-American role I’ve seen in ages from an industry that supposedly supports diversity at home. Hollywood casting agents, look to Kohn and lead by her and her team’s example.
VanCamp and Nyqvist really are the centerpieces to this drama, and both churn out exceptional work layered with nuanced, complex emotion that would challenge even the most experienced of thespians. VanCamp takes her character’s arc in realistic stride, understandably doleful at first but then open to the possibility of trusting in the state of happiness. Nyqvist strikes the perfect character balance of intellectual and sleaze, a narcissist so consumed with the idea that experiences shape art that he’s unwilling to see the heartbreaking consequences of such unrestricted behavior. More engaging of a plot than meets the eye, and bolstered by some tender and affecting performances from its cast, The Girl in the Book should pride itself in the big steps it takes for women’s cinema. Sometimes it takes a small film to bring about colossal change, so let’s hope more than a few eyes land on Marya Cohn’s invaluable first feature.
The Girl in the Book had its worldwide premiere this past weekend at the 2015 Los Angeles Film Festival. The film is competing in the festival’s “Best Dramatic Feature” category. Check out a clip below!