Directed by: Marya Cohn
Premise: A frustrated novelist who also works as an assistant book editor (Emily VanCamp) is assigned to coordinate the publicity campaign for the republication of a bestselling novel. The assignment brings up painful memories of her past.
What Works: The Girl in the Book is a well-crafted drama about the relationship between the past and present and between fiction and real life. The movie begins by introducing the viewer to Alice, a would-be novelist suffering from writer’s block. She spends her days working as an assistant to a major book editor and her nights are a flurry of drinks and one night stands. At first glance she appears to be a modern woman in New York City but the film gradually reveals that there is more at work in her character. Alice is assigned to coordinate the publicity campaign for the rerelease of a classic novel written by an author with whom she shares a history. From here The Girl in the Book leaps back and forth in time, showing Alice as a teenager in which she first meets Milan, a considerably older man whose first novel is being edited by Alice’s father. Alice and Milan hit it off under the auspices of a mentorship that gradually mutates into an inappropriate relationship. In the present tense, the reunion of Alice and Milan sends the woman’s life into a tailspin in which old memories are dredged up and her behavior becomes increasingly erratic, threatening her friendships, including a new romantic relationship with a community organizer (David Call). The Girl in the Book is primarily about Alice attempting to assert some control over her life. It is clear that she has allowed this past trauma to dictate her present and it risks derailing her future. The filmmakers smartly tie Alice’s dysfunction into the act of writing itself; the fictional protagonist of Milan’s novel was drawn from Alice and the success of the book has frozen her in an adolescent stage but Alice’s own writing offers a way out. The success of The Girl in the Book rests upon the performance of Emily VanCamp as Alice and the actress is terrific in the part. She is vulnerable while also being a person of volition, which is a difficult combination to get right and VanCamp nails it. The performance by Michael Nyqvist as Milan is also impressive. Nyqvist doesn’t play up the lechery. Instead the film provides a subtle dramatization of what predatory behavior looks like and Milan’s seduction of young Alice is creepy in a credible way. The Girl in the Book is also, for most of its running time, unsentimental. It critiques the way adolescence is romanticized and the filmmakers push into some difficult topics while handling the material tactfully.
What Doesn’t: The ending of The Girl in the Book is a little too neat and optimistic. Alice makes a few terrible choices over the course of this story, hurting and alienating several key people in her life, but those characters forgive her too easily. A problem with abuse narratives is that they can obfuscate personal responsibility. Alice is suffering from trauma that is complicated by her relationship with her boor of a father but that does not mitigate her own culpability. She made impulsive decisions motivated by her complicated feelings but they are nevertheless her choices. The Girl in the Book doesn’t completely write off Alice’s mistakes on her past but the relatively easy reconciliation does minimize the severity of what she’s done. Also, in getting to that reconciliation, writer-director Marya Cohn falls back on a romantic-comedy device that is a twenty-first century version of the boombox sequence in Say Anything. For a film that otherwise avoids sentimentality and critiques romanticism, this plot point is disappointingly hokey and out of step with the rest of the movie.
DVD extras: None.
Bottom Line: The Girl in the Book was released on a very limited scale and so it didn’t get much attention from critics or audience. But the movie is well worth seeking out. It’s a smart story of trauma and reconciliation and despite a few missteps it succeeds in large part because of the performance by Emily VanCamp.
Episode: #597 (June 5, 2016)