Electrick Children: AFI Fest Review

Electrick Children - H 2012
You needn’t be a true believer to appreciate Rebecca Thomas’s indie feature rooted in a traditional Mormon community.

Rebecca Thomas’s indie feature, set in a traditional Mormon community, features a standout performance by young Julia Garner.

Sacrificing a modicum of realism for a touch of the miraculous pays off nicely in Rebecca Thomas’ charming debut feature, a whimsical coming-of-ager lightened with a few fanciful elements. Following its Berlin and SXSW debuts earlier this year, the film’s festival rollout could eventually garner a modest theatrical launch or VOD berth.

It’s 1996 and Rachel (Julia Garner) is just turning 15 in the ultra-conservative Utah Mormon community where her father (Billy Zane) is a religious leader who stresses chastity and obedience, recording his daughter’s birthday interview about her habits and beliefs on a portable cassette deck. Rachel’s a bit of a rebel, however, who often latches onto her mother’s (Cynthia Watros) bedtime stories about discovering and taming a wild red mustang when she was younger.

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Curious about the cassette player, Rachel sneaks into the basement one night and discovers among the homemade recordings a mysterious, unlabeled blue cassette. When she surreptitiously plays the tape, a man’s voice belts out a cover of the Blondie classic “Hanging on the Telephone,” transporting Rachel’s imagination to unfamiliar realms.

When her disapproving adopted brother, known as Mr. Will (Liam Aiken), discovers her unsanctioned behavior, he strongly disapproves, but Rachel has already been irrevocably transformed by the song, telling her mother that she’s become pregnant. When a drugstore test kit confirms her claim, the girl’s parents blame Will, although both deny he had any role and Rachel continues to contend that the song caused her pregnancy.

Escaping a hastily arranged, unwanted marriage to a local boy, Rachel steals the family pickup truck and lights out for Las Vegas to find the singer on the tape, with Will aboard as an unexpected stowaway. Their quest to understand Rachel’s mysterious pregnancy and perhaps find their way back home again gets complicated when they fall in with a group of musicians and skater kids, including Clyde (Rory Culkin), a pensive loner who gets caught up in Rachel’s quest to discover the man (Bill Sage) behind the song on the cassette, who may perhaps know something more about her immaculate conception.

Drawing on her own Mormon upbringing, Thomas graces the film’s characters and situations with a degree of detail that would elude most outsiders. The prairie-style costuming, rustic sets and archaic, religiously inflected speech are hallmarks of first-hand experience living in a community of faith. Thomas and DP Mattias Troelstrup’s approach emphasizes clean, sometimes luminous, imagery that’s further enhanced by the hi-def format.

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When she casually introduces scenes with a hint of magical realism -- among them, sequences that conflate a wild horse with a red Mustang driven my a mysterious man in the mother’s bedtime tales -- Thomas relies on an impressionistic style rather than flashy visual effects to convey Rachel’s vivid imagination.

Recently coming off supporting roles in The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Martha Marcy May Marlene last year, Garner is a revelation in Thomas’ film, playing the divinely inspired teenager with rare conviction and authenticity. Supporting roles are solid, with Culkin turning in a typically offbeat performance and both Aiken and Sage contributing sturdily.

Venue: AFI Fest
Production company: Live Wire Films
Cast: Julia Garner, Rory Culkin, Liam Aiken, Cynthia Watros, Billy Zane, Bill Sage
Director-screenwriter: Rebecca Thomas
Producers: Jessica Caldwell, Richard Neustadter
Director of photography: Mattias Troelstrup
Costume designer: Stacey Berman
Editor: Jennifer Lilly
Music: Eric Colvin
Not rated, 93 minutes