Entertainment

So, Just How Old Is Amma In 'Sharp Objects'?

amma sharp objects
HBO

There's a central mystery to HBO's slow-burning murder mystery Sharp Objects: Who murdered the two girls in Wind Gap, Missouri? But there's another one that has been equally nagging viewers: Just how old is Amma (Eliza Scanlen) supposed to be? It should be a simple question; age isn't exactly fluid. But the answer has proved more perplexing than that -- and that's, in part, a function of what the show is trying to accomplish.

Amma is the younger half-sister of Amy Adams' heroine Camille Preaker, but they're basically strangers. The first time Camille encounters Amma -- loitering outside the search area for a recently murdered Natalie Keene -- they don't even acknowledge (or recognize) their connection. Amma, we soon learn, lives a double life. When she's with her mother Adora (Patricia Clarkson), she's outfitted in bows and modest dresses, but she transforms into a full rebellious teen in tank tops, bomber jackets, and short shorts when she goes out roller skating with her friends. Outside of her house, she seems like she'd be in her late-teens, smoking weed and slamming booze with other rowdy youngsters bored in small-town Missouri. Inside, she lets Adora cradle and dote on her like a child -- and a creepy Stepford child at that. When she talks -- especially when she's with Camille -- she sounds like she's seen some shit. 

Scanlen, the Australian actress who plays Amma, is 19. That's a big difference from how old Gillian Flynn wrote the character in the novel on which the series is based. There, she's 13. TV Amma is somewhere in the middle -- but where, exactly?

Some publications like Vulture and Quartz have put her at 14 years old. But, in an interview with Refinery29, Scanlen said that Amma is 15. HBO -- after conferring with Flynn and executive producer Jessica Rhoades -- confirmed what Scanlen told Refinery29. 

Still, her exact age is never specified on screen, and the dialogue offers few clues. In an episode that's yet to air, Amma describes seventh grade as being "like a million years ago," exaggerating in a typical teen fashion. Camille quickly corrects her that it was only "like a year ago." That would put her in the 13 to 14 range, if you assume that seventh grade is for 12 and 13 year olds. Regardless, the conclusion is, well, inconclusive.

But that's sort of the point. In the book, Flynn describes Amma as a "changeling," emphasizing her chameleonic, otherworldly qualities, among them the ability to look many ages at the same time. Camille, who narrates, says of an early encounter: "The girl was in a childish checked sundress matching straw hat by her side. She looked entirely her age -- thirteen -- for the first time since I'd seen her. Actually, no. she looked younger now. Those clothes were more appropriate for a ten-year-old."

amma sharp objects
HBO

Amma's consciously shifting how old she's perceived to be to toy with different people's sympathies. Beside her mother, she's childlike, throwing temper tantrums and playing with her doll house. That appeals to Adora, but unnerves Camille. Camille is wholly more comfortable with her sister when she catches her stumbling home drunk. It's in those moments the older sibling is convinced they are one in the same. In Episode 3, "Fix," an intoxicated Amma bluntly tells Camille she's "not nice." Camille responds, "I wasn't nice either when I was your age." It's a moment of camaraderie that Amma then quickly undoes when she taunts, "You love dead girls." Because that's the other thing to remember about Amma's age: It's a walking trigger for Camille, a reminder of her other sister Marian, long dead from a fatal illness, and the killer she's hunting. 

Amma is a puzzle. Which persona is more true? The girl in the cardigan, floating elegantly around on roller skates? Or the one cruelly slut-shaming her big sister? What was up with her little jaunt to the slaughterhouse where she cradled a piglet? Is Amma Camille's ally or foe? With all these queries left hanging, it's only fitting that her age would also confound. 

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.