Rebecca Thomas’ impressive debut is a compelling account of a young girl cast adrift in the world
By Neal Baker
Over the last year, American cinema has witnessed a clutch of films exploring the activities of religious cults. While Kevin Smith’s Red State satirises the shift towards Christian fundamentalism amongst the conservative right in the US, Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene and Zal BatManglij’s forthcoming Sound of My Voice focus on small communities with no identifiable religious belief, other than the cult of personality – groups whose common identity is defined by their Machiavellian leader. (This trend continues later in the year with Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, allegedly inspired by the life of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.) What these communities all share is an ambivalence towards the modern age, particularly technology.
In Electrick Children, it is technology that causes a devout member of a small congregation to fall from grace. Fascinated by the tape recorder her pastor father (Billy Zane, in his creepiest role since 2001’s The Believer) uses to record the testimonies of congregation members who are of age, Rachel steals out of the communal bedroom one night and into the basement, where the recorder is kept. Searching for it, she discovers a tape of rock music (‘Hanging on the Telephone’ as covered by Flowers Forever), which she listens to in a state of ecstasy. Her brother finds her there and during a scuffle to gain control of the machine, the teenagers are found fooling around on the floor by their mother. Things then take a strange and ambiguous turn. The playing of this illicit music prompts a divine intervention – at least that’s how Rachel sees it. And rather than face a depressing future in a loveless marriage at the farm, she makes a break for the outside world in the family pick-up, with her brother hiding in the back. Her destination is Las Vegas.
Rebecca Thomas’ film is a finely crafted character study featuring a quiet and affecting performance by Julie Garner. She was previously seen in Martha Marcy May Marlene playing a new inductee to the community. Here she carries the entire film with ease and, like Elizabeth Olsen in Durkin’s film, a confidence and maturity that belies her youthful appearance. The two worlds we see through her eyes are odd, unsettling places, mixed with Rachel’s sense of wonderment; our perception of the characters she encounters is filtered through the innocent eyes of a young girl who might fail to understand the dangers she finds herself in. At the same time, she is not so naive as to be seduced by the new world. The only moment we witness something akin to passion in her is when she hears that song.
Unlike the neon-drenched boulevard of casinos, hotels and bars that represents Las Vegas in most films, the city here is little more than a bland hinterland, no different in colour or light to the land on which Rachel and the religious community subsisted. Only in her imagining a story her mother tells her does Rachel’s world became a blaze of vivid imagery. However, in the film’s closing moments, as everything is about to change for her, there is a sense that Rachel’s world, and her life, is likely to be become a great deal more colourful.
With thanks to Curzon Cinemas
Electrick Children screens at Cornerhouse from Fri 13 July. Book tickets here