‘Electrick Children’ has atmosphere and performance highs, but bothersome coincidences

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Electrick Children
Written and directed by Rebecca Thomas
USA, 2012

Electrick Children’s lead Julia Garner played a brief but memorable role in 2011’s Martha Marcy May Marlene, which Rebecca Thomas’ film bares superficial comparisons to in that they both concern members of ritualised, insular societies in contemporary America; both also happen to be the debut features for their directors. Thomas’ film takes a far less disturbing approach to the concept and is rooted in an existing spiritual type of commune, that of Mormonism through which the director herself was once raised. In this sense, the film bares a stronger resemblance to something like Peter Weir’s Witness, refraining from any outright indictment of the isolated way of life and using the culture as fuel for a narrative extending beyond the commune’s boundaries.

Garner’s Rachel begins the film being interviewed on her fifteenth birthday by her community leader and father (Billy Zane), through the use of a tape recorder described by her father as equipment “whose purposes can be used for evil”. Unfamiliar with the device, and recorded media in general, the hopelessly intrigued Rachel searches for her recording that night, finding both the cassette of her testimony of chastity but also something else. A second tape, blue and curiously unlabeled, contains a song recording, that of The Nerves’ “Hanging on the Telephone”, most famously covered by Blondie. She listens enrapt to the forbidden music, and discovers a few weeks later that she is mysteriously pregnant. Rachel believes the forbidden cassette and the vocals within it represent God, and that she has been blessed with the gift of life through listening to it. It’s an apparent case of Immaculate Conception via new wave punk. Unconvinced, her parents prepare an arranged marriage for her in the coming days, and exile Rachel’s brother Mr. Will (Liam Aiken), believing the boy to have forced himself on his sister. Rachel flees Utah for Las Vegas in the family truck, unaware Mr. Will is sleeping in the back. The pair accused of sin arrive in Sin City, with the dangerous tape recorder and cassette in tow. Mr. Will urges Rachel to record a confession proving his innocence, but she is more concerned with finding the male vocalist on the blue tape, believing the man a vessel for God’s word that her family may be more willing to accept as the father of her child.

The film is told almost exclusively from Rachel’s point of view, who, despite now being an outcast from her community, has beliefs far too ingrained for her to reject or even question them, holding on to them despite the misguided and dangerous nature of her quest. One might expect the film to have Rachel forced to reckon with her faith and belief in the source of her pregnancy, but the narrative takes a curious approach by having Rachel and Mr. Will joining up with a group of drifting skaters, stoners and musicians. Bar a few instances of culture shock upon arrival in Vegas – and the comedic moments there are never stoop to mocking the Mormon culture – the duo’s integration with dispossessed slacker Clyde (Rory Culkin) and his associates is relatively problem-free and almost instantaneous. The story direction isn’t inherently problematic, but the result is that Las Vegas comes across just as friendly as the Utah desert homestead, and just as easy to navigate. Everything seems to work out relatively easily for Rachel, and while the journey is often enjoyable to watch, the lack of difficulty and risk makes it less interesting and potent than it could have been.

The reliance on convenience proves especially problematic in the film’s last third, where coincidences rack up to bothersome heights and characters find themselves in a situation that wouldn’t feel out of place in an outlandish romantic comedy. Combined with an over-reliance on recorded confessionals that gradually feels like a crutch, and an eventually grating samey score, Electrick Children’s climax proves very disappointing. That said, there is much to admire throughout the rest of the film. There are nice de-saturated and intimate qualities to the cinematography, and the characters are well realised even if their narrative paths are not. Culkin, in particular, delivers probably his finest performance since You Can Count on Me, while Garner is a hypnotic marvel and the film’s greatest asset. With angelic physicality and unwavering confidence, Rachel is an innocent soul without ever coming across as stupid in her naivety; she is a beautifully vulnerable mix of conviction and enthusiasm.

Josh Slater-Williams

  1. richard neustadter says

    Thank you for your well written review. As the film’s producer, it has been fascinating for me to observe the disparity between audience and critical response. While audiences, by and large, accept the magical reality and go along for the ride without protest, critics, always concerned with the exigencies of structure and conflict, have been divided with regard to the ease with which the story flows. All concur with your praise of the atmosphere, cinematography, and outstanding performances.
    While it is perfectly legitimate to find fault with the narrative’s “reliance on coincidence” in the third act, I find that this has more to do with the individual viewer’s point of departure. I have always marveled at how some subjects are receptive to hypnosis, while others resist. The performer always seems to know which subjects to choose! Similarly, not all our critics have proven as receptive as our audiences to the fairy tale aspect of our narrative, which is essentially a modern day, yet somewhat equivocal, retelling of the biblical story of the virginal conception of Jesus. Inherent in such matters of Divine providence, is the blurring of distinction between miracles and coincidence. As our central moment of virginal pregnancy is divorced from reality, it was our hope that this mood would prevail, demanding the consistency of a magical realist narrative, pregnant (sorry!) with symbolism and biblical allegory. At the end of the day, the biblical exposition of a young girl who remains true to her faith is retold in a setting that brings together displaced young people from contrasting walks of life, estranged from their elders, searching for their distinct spiritual identities.
    In any event, I do compliment your thoughtful and beautifully written review.

    1. Josh Slater-Williams says

      Thank you for your compliments regarding my writing, Richard, and for taking the time to leave feedback on the review. I will take these points of yours into consideration should I see the film again, to see if I end up taking more from the film than the first time round. I was very fond of many of the film’s other elements, as I gather my write-up made clear.

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