Review: The Girl in the Book (Cohn, 2015) – MVFF 2015

Courtesy of the California Film Institute

Courtesy of the California Film Institute

In The Girl in the Book, Alice Harvey (Emily VanCamp as adult Alice, Ana Mulvoy-Ten as young Alice) is a downtrodden assistant editor who, in addition to working the slush pile at her publishing firm, also has the unglamorous responsibility of running personal errands for her jerk of a boss. Her personal life seems no better as she reels from one meaningless one-night stand to another. Once a promising writer herself, Alice hasn’t been able to satisfactorily put words on paper since high school when Milan Daneker (Michael Nyqvist from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), an older author and client of her book agent parents, courted and molested her (worse still that it happened under the indifferent and disbelieving gaze of her domineering father, played by Michael Cristofer). In a further humiliation, Milan novelized their experiences in his bestseller Waking Eyes, which instantly became a modern classic. Now, fifteen years later, Alice is assigned the unbearable task of promoting the man and the re-release of the novel that cut short her childhood.

Unfortunately, writer and director Marya Cohn fails to deliver on this promising premise. The primary problem is that the film is simply unconvincing. The dialogue, as far-fetched as any Hollywood-generated exchange without any of the enjoyableness, is rendered even more implausible by the actors’ self-conscious and overblown deliveries. Furthermore, Cohn’s portrayal of the relationship between Alice’s past as a plundered nymphette and her promiscuous present is too straightforward. In real life the path between cause and effect is much messier, much more circuitous. That roundabout path, that messy tangle of failures and good intentions and lessons that have to be learned over and over again–in other words, what Cohn chooses to skip–that is the stuff that good stories are made of.

Perhaps the most galling aspect of the film is its inappropriate rom-com ending. There is nothing inherently wrong with the fact that The Girl in the Book is ultimately a movie about personal transformation. As a teen, Alice was abused, neglected by her parents, and stifled by all the adults in her life. The way Cohn has it, as an adult, Alice fears love, constantly self-sabotages, and is as spineless as one of Ursula’s poor unfortunate souls. Then, through Alice’s supposed friends, Cohn whips and judges her, trampling her into a rock bottom that’s so miserable that she finally sees the light. But to suggest that Alice’s life could be suddenly “fixed” in one turn of will trivializes the very real trauma that she endured. In that sense, Cohn’s treatment of her character is dismally uncompassionate and betrays her inexperience as a storyteller.

Such heavy subject matter would be difficult for any filmmaker to manipulate, and it appears that newcomer Marya Cohn bit off a bit more than she could chew. But others might see it differently. If you want to form your own opinion, The Girl in the Book screens at the Mill Valley Film Festival on October 10, 12, and 15–or choose from the over hundred other films showing at the festival this year.