The very notion of an immaculate conception baffles the mind. It’s a concept that is the very foundation of religious beliefs despite its blatant impossibility. It’s also somewhat of a surprisingly rare theme of narrative in movies, well other than in demonic horrors about demon babies.
It’s a strange concept to grasp, then, when portrayed in a real world coming of age tale involving a 15-year-old Mormon girl and the apparent magical impregnating powers of a cassette tape.
Electrick Children is the feature film debut of Rebecca Thomas, she herself raised in the Mormon community, and is very much an extraordinary tale cleverly nuanced within a very ordinary setting. Rachel (Julia Garner) is a 15-year-old girl seemingly content with the simple Mormon life until her curiosity towards a mysterious tape of rock and roll plucks her from the safety of her family’s farm to the neon stained counter culture of Las Vegas. Having listened to the sounds of the cassette, Rachel discovers herself to be pregnant, and sets off with a reluctant Mr Will (Liam Aiken) to find the man singing on the tape; the man she believes to be the father of her immaculately conceived child. On the potentially dangerous yet exciting streets of Vegas, Rachel meets Clyde (Rory Culkin); a rebellious youth who assists her in finding the mystery man while exposing her and Mr Will to a teenage life they never knew existed.
The concept is most certainly a strange one considering it’s contemporary and real-world setting but it’s also a bold one. Challenging an audience to fully accept an immaculate conception as a feasible plot point, Rebecca Thomas confidently lays out the idea and weaves a delightful coming of age tale around it. The film itself is utterly charming throughout. Never dismissing or belittling the Mormon faith, the first-time writer/director clearly shows a certain respect towards such an upbringing, without every pandering to it. There is simply no “villain” of the piece, be that the Mormon way of life itself or Rachel’s authoritarian father (played with subtlety by Billy Zane). He is simply an honest man who is just trying to do right by his family, and his God. There is never a question of who is right and wrong in how to live their life, merely the idea that one should at least have a choice. And despite the increasing scrutiny on religion in society as a whole, the film could’ve easily fallen into a snipe on strict American faiths. Instead, Electrick Children just acknowledges it’s existence, and for this fact, I think it’s commendable that Rebecca Thomas sits on the fence as a diplomat rather than using the medium to attack a life bound by rules in the name of God.
As the film progresses, Rachel’s pregnancy unfortunately becomes somewhat insignificant. Instead, the origin of Rachel herself slowly emerges to the forefront of the story leaving the Immaculate Conception plot point lost aimlessly in the first act. It feels a bit unsatisfying, then, that there is never any real closure to a part of the story that initially feels so important. Having shown such gusto in laying out such a theme for an audience to grasp, it feels like a bit of a cop out to throw it on the backburner and hope the audience don’t notice but maybe it’s intentionally left up to the viewer to draw their own conclusions.
Electrick Children feels very much like a product of the Terrence Malick school of cinema; shots of the American countryside painted with the orange hue of the magic hour, subtle dream like sequences wrapped around focused pieces of narration (that often become wholly pretentious) and performances that just feel genuine. Julia Garner is stunning as Rachel. Impossible to dislike at any point of the film, she shines in the lead role. Naïve yet passionately curious, she brings a perfect balance of vulnerability and warmth to her role as the young girl who truly believes she is part of a miracle. A similar array of superlatives can also be said for Rory Culkin; as charming as we’ve grown accustomed to from a Culkin, his rebellious teen schlock as Clyde is the perfect foil for Garner’s oblivious innocence. As a result, the on screen chemistry between the two is a constant delight to behold and is most definitely a highlight of the film. The two are also supported well throughout; more so by Liam Aiken, who is a constant source of understated sympathy. And while he’s supposed to be the voice of reason in contrast to Clyde’s “live free” outlook on life, you feel compelled to will him on to break the shackles of his suppressed youth.
With it’s curiously bold subject matter, understatedly brilliant performances and a soundtrack that constantly yet softly sings “America”, Electrick Children is very much cut from the cloth of an older generation of American Indie rather than sharing similarities with the modern tales of quirkiness in the genre. It isn’t particularly edgy, it isn’t gritty or hard-hitting, but merely a tale of a teenage girl breaking free from a childhood bound by rules. It’s a simple fable told with an extraordinary twist and Rebecca Thomas has crafted a film that is honest, humorous, inoffensive and completely charming. I for one emerged from the screening beaming, with a warm feeling in my stomach…good job I’m a bloke though, or else I would’ve been convinced I was pregnant too.
Electrick children is released July 13th.