Written and directed by Connor Gaston
A film which tugs on heartstrings like a puppeteer, The Devout is an emotionally resonant film which doesn’t fully connect its script with the finished product. Set in the bible belt of British Columbia, the narrative is nestled around a Christian teacher, Darryl, his wife Jan, and their daughter Abigail, who is dying of cancer.
By itself, The Devout’s exploration of family dynamics amidst a slowly unfurling tragedy is compelling cinema. Shot with wide lenses and a muted grey complexion, images of Darryl and Jan slide between heartbroken tears to putting on a happy face for the four-year-old Abigail. With a warm chemistry between the family members, and a deft hand from Gaston guiding them, their interactions – breakfasts, stories, setting off fireworks at magic hour – become the highlight of the film. Alas, they should also be its bedrock; but instead of trusting this aspect to satisfy the audience, another element is introduced: the possibility that reincarnation exists, that Abigail remembers her past life, and possibly even her future one. Daryl becomes obsessed with the possibility that he can see his daughter again after death, much to the mortification of his wife, friends, family, and townsfolk, who think he’s neglecting his daughter’s last days alive by searching for a non-existent proof. The conflict hinges on their religious belief. The whole town is at least nominally Christian, and we’re reminded with in-your-face reminders like wearing cross jewelry, Christian paintings and portraits, and occasionally through the dialogue.
However, Connor Gaston’s debut feature fails to provide an in-depth view of how Darryl and his family struggle to reconcile their faith, their dying daughter, and the sprig of hope that she may be reincarnated. It opts for a superficial struggle with the supernatural, pounding the subject matter thin to the point where the film would have been better off without it at all.
Conceptually, this should work. The idea that children can see past and future lives is grounds for great art, notably William Wordsworth’s Ode: Intimations of Immortality. The directness of the approach to incarnation is also a surprisingly rare tactic in western cinema. There should be sparks flying between Darryl and his family, causing him to question his beliefs or at least try to syncretise the two. The film tries to, but hesitates, falters, then fails. While Gaston is respectful of the portrayal of faith onscreen, pursuing thoughtful pushback rather than mockery or aggression, it feels like a facade. Clichés spring up like weeds, hymns are briefly sung, and passive-aggressive prayers/bless you’s are doled out by Darryl’s mother-in-law. The whole process is too clean cut. It comes too easily to Darryl; there’s never a sense of struggle – he accepts the possibility of reincarnation at the first odd thing his daughter says. There’s no attempt at thinking theologically, or anything deeper than Christian truisms like “God’s got you in His hand” and a pie-in-the-sky mentality. Could this accurately represent certain people? Undoubtedly it does, but it makes for poor, disingenuous conflict. Especially since The Devout is bookended by scenes which all but confirm the validity of Abigail’s reincarnation, settling the question in the mind of the audience well before Darryl and Jan.
As a result, there’s a noticeable lack of tension or urgency to the whole. The script is obviously gunning for it, but the screen doesn’t give off the necessary energy to make it work. There’s a slight Take Shelter vibe at times, but it lacks the high stakes and emotional investment of Nichol’s film. The only moments to break though the muted monotony of gray are surges of vibrancy with Abigail and her parents, again showcasing how the film’s focus on the supernatural, while making it unique on paper, weakens its best qualities.
There is a moment near the end when it seems like the film redeems itself: an image of Darryl and Jan clasping hands, sitting at Abigail’s bedside while she drifts away. Reaffirming the keen eye for family dynamics Gaston showed earlier, it signals that they are no longer invested in what exactly happens after death. They’re simply content to spend what little time they have left with their daughter.
Regrettably, it is not to be. The Devout turns to an ill-conceived coda, three years in the future, that undoes the beauty of the previous shot and wraps up the film in a saccharine bow. Gaston’s film is emotionally resonant and well composed, but it sabotages itself with a tonal imbalance that undermines its most profound conclusions.
The Vancouver International Film Festival takes place from September 24 – October 9, 2015. Visit the official website for more information.