'My Scientology Movie': Film Review

New look at well-charted territory adds just enough to justify its existence.

BBC host Louis Theroux makes his feature debut in John Dower's nervy look at the "religion" everyone loves to gossip about.

Taking a just-fresh-enough approach to justify another trip to the deep "Isn't Scientology bizarre?" well, John Dower's My Scientology Movie sends journalist Louis Theroux on a straight-faced mission to let the organization's muckity-mucks speak for themselves, knowing full well that's never going to happen. The backup plan in this case involves not just the usual interviews with prominent apostates, but an intriguing use of actors to re-create some of the stories we've been hearing for years about what it's like to be in the inner circle. Those whose curiosity wasn't sated by Alex Gibney's highbrow Going Clear will appreciate this sometimes funny but not unserious picture, which will find most of its audience on video and streaming platforms.

Theroux (son of writer Paul), sets out, seemingly without facetiousness, by telling us, "My dream was that I might be the first journalist to see another, more positive side of the church." He began requesting interviews over a decade ago. But as with so many who have gone through official channels in the past, "My approaches were all turned down."

So he connected with such refugees as Marty Rathbun, who says he at one point was inspector general overseeing "Religious Technology" for the organization. And upon hearing their stories of the tyrannical leadership style of head Scientologist David Miscavige, he decided to (sort of) borrow a page from The Act of Killing: He held auditions in L.A., asking actors to play Miscavige, Tom Cruise and other high-level Hubbardites.

Though scenes in which Theroux and Rathbun coach actors have a comic side (one rather clumsily played up by Dan Jones' score), at their best, they can produce unsettling moments. As when Rathbun, feeding auditioners tips about Miscavige's seething style, elicits a truly fearsome performance from actor Andrew Perez, who seems to frighten even Rathbun. He gets the gig, but while he's important to the rest of the doc, the first cut is the deepest.

Theroux spends time with others who were once deeply involved in Scientology, like Tom De Vocht, who put in three decades with the elite "Sea Org," and Mark Headley, who sued the group for imprisonment. With Headley, we learn about the movie studio where believers produced laughably overwrought propaganda films. It is while driving carefully around this property that Theroux gets his first in-person encounter with the mysterious figures he has long believed to be tailing him.

"We don't have to be silly about this," Theroux generously begs, like Michael Moore sans the smarmy faux-naif routine, as he attempts to engage with this woman — later identified as Catherine Fraser — and the freelance cameraman she has hired to intimidate him. But as he will soon learn — as Church "squirrel busters" accost Rathbun in an airport, and as several scenes document "I'm filming you filming me" standoffs — silly is very much what you get when venturing into the world of Thetans and E-meters and LRH.

Production company: BBC Films
Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
Director: John Dower
Screenwriters: John Dower, Louis Theroux
Producer: Simon Chinn
Executive producers: Christine Langan, Stephen McDonogh, Charlotte Moore, Joe Oppenheimer, Mark Reynolds
Director of photography: Will Pugh
Editor: Paul Carlin
Composer: Dan Jones
Casting director: Ron Blair

99 minutes