A deeply religious teenager confuses divine intervention with analog audio recordings in this engaging oddity from first-time filmmaker Rebecca Thomas, which manages to be offbeat with being off-putting.
Rachel (Julia Garner) lives an antiquated and remote existence in a fundamental Mormon sect somewhere in the parched Utah landscape. Chancing upon an old blue cassette tape and player one night in the basement of the home she shares with her mother, ‘father’ (Billy Zane) and elder brother, Mr. Will (?), she presses play and discovers music for the first time. The song in question (a cover of Blondie’s Hanging On The Telephone) seems to have a life-changing effect over her.
Three months later, and discovering herself to be pregnant, she believes the cause is some act of immaculate conception brought on by her listening to the cassette. Escaping from her home, she travels to Vegas in an attempt to gather information about the origins of the song. Unbeknownst to her, Mr. Will (who has been wrongfully accused of embarking on an incestuous relationship with his sister) is also in tow, and the two fall in with a group of slacker musicians, with one member in particular (Rory Culkin) taking a shine to Rachel and her plight.
With its frankly bizarre premise, Electrick Children might appear at first to be following a self-conscious desire to crank up the quirkiness inherent in the lead character’s situation. While it does make some nods to that kind of hip indie cinema model of late (brooding, nu-gaze soundtrack – check; muted, dream-like visual palette – check) Thomas brings a distinctively measured and heartfelt approach to the material, which distinguishes it from an exercise purely in style.
It’s a film which is difficult to define, at first coming over as a solemn drama set in a regimented cult environment, à la Martha Marcy May Marlene (which Garner featured in, incidentally), before briefly flirting with a fish out of water-type scenario when Rachel enters normal civilisation for the first time. Thomas however, isn’t interesting in setting up familiar tropes, and the unseen incidents and activities linked to Rachel’s predicament are also left purposely ambiguous, leaving an air of mystery and otherworldly intrigue.
Helping to further establish that vibe is the ethereal presence of Garner. This is a break-out role for the 18-year-old actress, and she projects a wide-eyed innocence (and indeed, wide-eyed strangeness) which is fascinating to follow. The director also manages to wrangle some terrific performances out of her supporting cast, with Culkin and Zane (surely due a mini career resurgence by now?) making the biggest impressions.
If Thomas stumbles, it’s an issue which befalls many debut directors, and she can’t quite muster the same solid grasp of storytelling she shows with the visuals and her ability to elicit strong performances. As a result, the film loses a little of its appeal in the third act, and a fitting resolution fails to materialise at the end. Nevertheless, this is still an imaginative and beguiling glimpse (on an extremely modest budget) into confused adolescence, marking out both Thomas and Garner (soon to be seen in the English-language remake of 2010’s domestic cannibal yarn, We Are What We Are) as names to watch.
Not a huge wealth of material here. There’s the obligatory selection of deleted scenes and the weird inclusion of footage from the film’s location scouting. A Q&A with Thomas (filmed at London’s Curzon cinema) is pretty insightful and revealing however, and the director is open about her past and how it informed the film (she was brought up as a Mormon, although via a much more progressive household than the characters in the film.)