Electrick Children has a hushed, pregnant urgency. In the eerie opening moments we’re introduced to Rachel (a superb Julia Garner), a 15-year-old Mormon living in the Utah wilderness on a commune so remote that it takes a few minutes to place the film as being set in the 1990s. With the exception of the occasional object of relative modernity, such as a tape recorder or an old pickup truck, the community shuns most modern spoils in favor of a minimalist life that emphasizes puritanical notions of chastity as well as an abiding allegiance to God.
It’s clear early on that Rachel is a variation of the traditional film hero who’s split between the beliefs of her community and the slowly dawning realization that there may be other sensibilities, alien to her, that could embody equally rational and perhaps more satisfying ways to live. Rachel is particularly preoccupied with the context of her own birth, which her mother, Gay Lynn (Cynthia Watros), claims was an immaculate conception that had something to do with a wild mustang. One certainly doesn’t have to read much Freud to register Gay Lynn’s story, particularly the part with the mustang, as a profoundly sexualized justification dreamed up, in this case, by a beautiful woman who’s had to adapt to a repressive society. Unfortunately, writer-director Rebecca Thomas, in an early, and rare, misstep, immediately literalizes the subtext of Gay Lynn’s story with contradictory images that show her frolicking with a stud in a Mustang of the automobile variety, thus priming us for a narrative that criticizes the Mormons’ austere hypocrisy while celebrating Rachel’s blossoming individuality.
With the possible exception of its ironic, ambiguous ending, that was basically the sensibility that defined the similar Martha Marcy May Marlene (in which Garner also appeared). That film, however, despite evocative craftsmanship and a few wonderful performances, was ultimately a glib and contemptuous horror film that refused to plumb beneath the superficial assertion that the social structures of the middle class and a quasi-religious cult, respectively, served essentially the same insidious function of conformist mind control.
Thankfully, Thomas isn’t interested in a self-congratulatory, conceptualized harangue. The filmmaker has all sorts of opportunities to cheapen her characters or score easy points off of cultures that are often derided by the conventionally middle class (religious extremists, skaters), and she gracefully evades every one. Though Electrick Children is her first film, Thomas is already an exceptional stylist, reminiscent of Monte Hellman, who conjures an atmosphere, characterized by surreal color saturation and hovering, otherworldly camera movements, that elegantly affirms the characters’ feelings of melancholic displacement. The Mormons and the wandering skaters who eventually appear aren’t pitted against one another in a reductive metaphorical cage match, as Thomas understands, bracingly, that both cultures are reacting to similar existential fears in differing fashions. The ending is somewhat pat for a film this haunting and well-observed, but that’s splitting hairs, as Electrick Children is one of the most sensible and humane explorations of youthful curiosity and alienation I’ve seen in some time.