Turn Me On With Your Electric Feel: Thomas’ Debut Not So Immaculate
For her film debut, Rebecca Thomas exploits the mostly socially sanctioned and acceptable form of cult life in the Western World, organized religion, here exploring the isolated Mormon community with Electrick Children. A far cry from the dark dread of something like last year’s brilliant Martha Marcy May Marlene, Thomas instead gives us an even-heeled, though undeniably quirky coming of age road trip movie, angled on culture clash for a great deal of its charm. There’s a nagging feeling that never quite leaves us, even after the film ends, never bothering to directly address some of its more prescient issues. This is both a blessing and a curse, imbuing the film with a certain mysterious aura, but declawing its climax at the same time.
Rachel (Julie Garner), living in an isolated, fundamentalist Mormon community in Utah, has just turned 15. As is customary at that age, she receives a tape recorded Ecclesiastical interview, administered by her father, Paul (Billy Zane), a preacher in the community. Rachel has never been exposed to anything remotely technological, and she is immediately intrigued with the tape recording device. She pesters he brother, Mr. Will (Liam Aiken), who had been present for her interview, to let her hear her own voice. Mr. Will responds that she cannot, and even her father warned her that such a device can be used for evil reasons. Unable to quell her curiosity, she sneaks into the basement where the device is kept, and thus listens to a recording of a cover of Blondie’s song, “Hanging on the Telephone,” here sung by a man.
Caught in the act by Mr. Will, the siblings struggle over the tape, and are discovered grappling on the floor by their mother, Gay Lynn (Cynthia Watros), in what looks suspiciously like a sexual embrace in the darkness. Weeks later, Rachel discovers she is pregnant, convincing herself of an immaculate conception, that the voice on the blue tape impregnated her, just as Mary was impregnated by the voice of the mythological leader from the Bible. Outraged, her parents cast Mr. Will out of the house, though Rachel vehemently denies that he ever touched her. An arranged marriage with one of the young men in the community causes Rachel to abscond to Las Vegas one night, in search of the owner of that mysterious voice on the tape. Followed by her brother, who insists that Rachel officially deny his involvement with the pregnancy by recording it on tape, they both end up meeting a group of skater kids. Clyde (Rory Culkin) becomes fascinated with Rachel, and, from a story that Gay Lynn told them about her wilder youth, Rachel discovers some other family secrets when she meets Tim (Bill Sage).
Thomas starts out with a wonderfully intriguing concept, and more power to her for refusing to answer some of the questions we beg to know the answers to. However, the film’s second half suffers quite a bit from an unbelievable amount of coincidences that distracts from the overall thrust of the film. At the center of the film, Julie Garner anchors the proceedings with her serious performance, and there’s never a moment where she doesn’t feel genuine (she also appeared memorably in Martha Marcy May Marlene, and you can look forward to seeing her in a variety of high profile independent films).
Of course, not even the religious zealotry of her parents allows them to even entertain the notion of immaculate conception, and since we can rule out Mr. Will, the nagging question remains, was it then her father, the preacher, that got her pregnant? There’s just a whisper of this possibility running throughout the film, just enough to get under your skin and stay with you, not unlike the luminous shots of Rachel in the neon lights of Vegas after abandoning the murky, dark shadow world of Utah. It’s too bad that some of the characters end up seeming completely superfluous to the proceedings, even with actors that are assured in their roles (Sage, Culkin, and John Patrick Amedori), but for her debut, Rebecca Thomas has written and directed a notable feature. But what would have been suggested if Debbie Harry’s original voice had been used for the pregnancy inducing song? That would have been an immaculate conception, indeed.
Reviewed on November 2nd at the 2012 AFI Film Festival – YOUNG AMERICANS Programme.