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.