Electrick Children is the gauzy debut feature of filmmaker Rebecca Thomas, starring up-and-comer Julia Garner in her first lead role, and as such heralds the arrival of some very promising young indie talent. This quirky, naive coming-of-age tale concerning Mormonism, Immaculate Conception via rock’n’roll, and teenage rebellion makes up for its occasional inexperience and narrative shortcomings with a trio of terrific performances, some gorgeous cinematography and an intriguing concept which coalesce to form a mesmerising, refreshing and largely enjoyable experience.
Written and directed by Thomas — herself brought up in the Mormon faith — the film follows Rachel (Julia Garner), an inquisitive and rambunctious young girl who lives in a remote fundamentalist Mormon community somewhere in Utah. The story opens with Rachel being interviewed on her fifteenth birthday by her preacher father (Billy Zane), who questions her on chastity and faith while recording the conversation on a tape recorder — seemingly the only piece of technology in their small community. Later that evening, she returns to the basement to listen to the recording and happens upon a blue cassette that contains a rock’n’roll song on it (The Nerves’ ‘Hanging on the Telephone’, famously covered by Blondie), becoming enraptured by the forbidden music. A few months later Rachel discovers that she is mysteriously pregnant and believes it to be an Immaculate Conception, caused by the voice on the tape. Her mother (Cynthia Watros) — harbouring her own family secret — soon finds out and blames her older brother, Mr. Will (Liam Aiken), who is banished from the community as a marriage to a neighbour’s son is hastily arranged. Rachel steals the family pickup and flees for Las Vegas — unknowingly with Mr. Will in the back — to locate the voice on the tape and assumed father, despite the objections of Mr. Will who is desperate for her to confess on tape and clear his name. She soon falls in with a grungy Sin City crew of skaters, stoners and musicians, gradually forming a bond with the street-smart slacker Clyde (Rory Culkin), who promises to help her out in spite of himself.
Much like Peter Weir’s classic Witness before it, Thomas’ film sensibly refrains from any critique of the fundamentalist Mormon lifestyle and instead uses the culture strictly for narrative purposes. The slightly overcooked narrative is told from the point of view of Rachel, and her naivety and steadfast beliefs are never called into question throughout. This may irritate some viewers, but it is perhaps forgivable in a film where the characters truly believe that their destinies are shaped by God. The screenwriting issues — relying on magical coincidences, overusing the tape recorder, etc. — might have been more of a problem if Thomas hadn’t lucked upon the remarkably talented Garner, whose performance is so magnetic that any reservations are easily put aside. She was previously seen in a small but memorable role in last year’s comparatively darker cult depiction Martha Marcy May Marlene, and as Elizabeth Olsen effortlessly carried that great film with a breakout debut lead performance, Garner does the same here. She is ably supported by Aiken and Culkin, whose subtle and impressive turns lend real integrity and touching emotion to key scenes, and even Zane and Watros bring surprising depth to their small roles. The desaturated cinematography is hazy and often gorgeous throughout, and the film’s elegant pacing and assured performances across the board demonstrate Thomas’ promise as a director, and the early scenes in particular display some keen observational skills in her writing.
As with most magic realism films, the third act of Electrick Children becomes especially problematic as unlikely coincidences pile up, and the finale is all too convenient. A more natural and less obviously scripted conclusion would have made for a much more satisfying journey, and although the realisation that it could have been much better is frustrating, it’s hard to begrudge such an enchanting film from a first-time filmmaker. Above all else this is Garner’s film, and she shines so bright here she is positively luminous, delivering a marvelous performance which is sure to put her on many people’s radars (she can next be seen in a supporting role in The Perks of Being a Wallflower). The auspicious young talent evident in Electrick Children may promise more than the film ultimately delivers, but it comes as recommended viewing regardless and we can expect big things from Thomas, Garner and co. in the coming years.
Electrick Children is out November 8 in NZ cinemas. Watch the trailer below.