You know that feeling of being invisible? It’s awful, crushing, and sometimes so suffocating you just want to scream to make people turn your way. This is the sensation at the heart of Marya Cohn’s The Girl In the Book, her feature directorial debut that takes on a daring and poignant story of self-recovery.
Though she’s directed theater, Cohn’s only previous film-helming credit was the prize-winning short film “Developing,” which starred a 13-year-old Natalie Portman as a girl struggling to understand her mother’s cancer diagnosis. With 2015’s The Girl In the Book, Cohn once more tackled a hard-hitting tale of loss of innocence. But this one had a uniquely personal inspiration point. In an interview from the film’s Los Angeles Film Festival premiere, she revealed, “The story is semi-autobiographical — and the kernel is an event in my life that stayed with me for a long time and that I discovered too many women could relate to.”
With that, let’s dive in.
The Girl In The Book begins with Alice (Emily VanCamp) at the start of the wordless routine of regret after a one-night-stand. She wakes naked and clearly disappointed, hustles out of a stranger’s apartment, onto the subway and into her office’s bathroom where she pulls panties from her purse and swabs paper towels over herself as an impromptu shower. This isn’t the jaunty comedy “walk of shame” of Trainwreck or Walk of Shame. Alice is somber, sad, silently questioning herself. Her job at a publishing company becomes a chance for self-reflection when the re-issue of a 15-year-old novel re-introduces her to a man from her past, and kicks us into a series of flashbacks from her pivotal teen years.
As an adult, Alice is bossed about and talked over by the men around her, including her short-sighted boss and the domineering dad who orders for her at restaurants, then claims bites from her plate as if they are rightfully his. Flashbacks show this is a long-established (though not beloved) trait of their father-daughter dynamic. But then there’s Milan (Michael Nyqvist), a family friend and novelist who really listens to tender 14-year-old Alice (Ana Mulvoy-Ten). He peppers her with questions about high school. She, so grateful for someone’s ear, tells him about her goth girl bestie and how “Boys don’t hold hands anymore. They just hook up.” She thinks they’re talking, but he’s researching, robbing the details of Alice’s life for his own work. But that’s not all he’ll take from her.
As they grow closer, the forty-something Milan grooms the girl. Kissing her forehead, holding her close while bemoaning his desire until she kisses him per his cues. Giving her the present of a poem, he’ll push further, groping her chest, testing to see if she’ll resist. And we see through Mulvoy-Ten’s shockingly authentic performance how Alice struggles. She wants his mentoring in her writing, his father-like attention, but not this. And so Cohn delivers a flip on the Lolita narrative. Instead of hearing the story from the mouth of a smooth-talking older man who blames a “nymphet”s natural allure for his criminal behavior, we hear from the girl who was used, abused, and is still lost over it all.
15 years later, Alice is lost in a world of men who command her, dismiss her, and desire her. She is lost to herself. As a girl, her stories won awards. Now, when she tries to write, she’s paralyzed by self-doubt. “I wait to hear the characters speak,” she laments to a new beau, “And instead there’s this voice that says, ‘This is shit. This is shit. This is shit.’” Alice doesn’t trust her voice and seeks validation in the arms of lustful men, always coming up feeling hollow. But with Milan back in her life, she has the chance to confront him and reclaim herself.
Lingering on Alice’s reactions to her travails, Cohn doesn’t shy away from the film’s uncomfortable content. In one particularly powerful moment, her camera takes Milan’s POV as he molests the girl. There’s no nudity. No leering. No attention paid to how this rape affects the male in the room. In a modest close-up, Alice stares at Milan (and the audience) with a wide-eyed innocence that’s positively heartbreaking. Game of Thrones could take a lesson here. The focus is always on Alice, fragile, flawed and human. The Girl In The Book feels for her, examines her warts and loves her anyway. The film doesn’t judge her, so neither do we. Cohn ties us to Alice with that frustration of feeling invisible, bullied, and isolated. And through Alice’s journey of recovery, this bold filmmaker dares us all to rally and fight back.
Asked what she wants people to take from her film, Cohn has declared, “How people can overcome difficult events in their pasts. How we have to decouple sex and violence/power so that fewer women will be sexually assaulted.” And perhaps most importantly: “How women need to speak out and speak their truths. “
Watch The Girl In the Book on Netflix.