Many will have seen Julia Garner star along side Elizabeth Olson in Sean Durkin’s breakout debut Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene earlier this year. Here she takes centre stage in another exciting debut also charting a young girl’s desertion of a cult-like society, this time due to a scandal involving an apparently ‘immaculate’ conception. Drawing on aspects of her own upbringing, writer/director Rebecca Thomas has crafted a film not only interesting but wholly likeable. Electrick Children hints at the emergence of a new female director to perhaps stand up against British heavy-weights Andrea Arnold and Lynne Ramsay.
Beginning in a village community in an unknown era, the sound of the ocean slowly rises before we’re introduced to our protagonist Rachel – a young girl seemingly being interviewed by a minister. Her voice is recorded on a tape-deck, a device she is fascinated by and one she soon becomes obsessed with. The story’s initial setting is hard to decipher due to the wonderment of this new technology, the small rural village life full of dated clothes and stifled attitudes. It’s a shock then that once our shamed heroine runs from her fundamentalist Mormon family in Utah towards downtown Las Vegas, that we discover it’s in fact the present day.
After being struck with wonder through the playback appeal of the tape-deck, Rachel sneaks out one night to hear her voice played back. There she discovers another tape in her basement containing rock music, something she has never heard before and a force by which she believes is responsible for her pregnancy soon after. Rachel literally believes the man’s voice on the tape was the voice of God. After the scandal of her pregnancy an arranged marriage is setup to avoid the shame of the situation, Rachel flees the village to find the voice on the tape, to find God, the father of her child.
She soon meets up with a tearaway bunch of rock musicians who spend most of the time drinking smoking and not knowing much about anything else. Rory Caulkin plays bandmate Clyde whom Rachel attaches herself to. What follows is a fish out of water scenario that though feeling rather cumbersome at times certainly doesn’t fail to entertain while an air of discomfort sticks as the film’s concerns with the implications of a sheltered religious upbringing hits home.
What’s most impressive with these large concerns is how delicately handled Thomas’s treatment of her material is. Whereas most would either attack the fundamentalist ideals or play it too safe thus bordering on mediocrity, Thomas’ approach manages to be both potent while remaining impressively serene. The location work has much to do with this as the striking imagery of Las Vegas being a clear juxtaposition from her village while being equally as detached and otherworldly, both timeless yet not entirely in time either.
One could nit pick about inconsistencies in Electrick Children but the excitement of a debut this assured outweighs the need. Any worries over the film’s trajectory is hardly of importance given what a magnetic performance Julia Garner delivers; a perfect piece of casting and a career making role if there ever was one. Her angelic innocence has you invested in Rachel completely with her baby deer like looks, confused world view, and unfortunate situation invoking paternal affection towards her. Praise is also due for Billy Zane as Rachel’s father figure and minister; his performance calm and collected, never showy or edging towards the darker side of his faith. He is as believable as a preacher could be and avoids the often tempting need for such a role to enter a demonizing level of conspicuousness.
With a tenderness running alongside the ambiguity throughout and an encapsulating performance from Garner, Electrick Children raises important questions without reading the riot act, choosing a gentler approach to the rough edges of the psychological thriller this so easily could have become.
Electrick Children is available on DVD, download, on-demand from October 15th.
Words by Joseph McDonagh