The first feature length film to be directed and written by Rebecca Thomas, Electrick Children is an odd creature. In parts sad, funny, surreal, a nostalgia for an innocent age it is an intimate look into the lives of several teenagers going through some hard times. Rachel (the radiant Julie Garner) is a fifteen year old living in a Mormon community. She finds a blue cassette tape in the cellar and is deeply affected by the song she hears (a cover version of ‘Hanging on the Telephone’ by Blondie). Her brother finds her in the cellar and there is an altercation where he attempts to take the tape away from her. It is the middle of the night and the pair are caught wrestling on the basement floor by their mother; nothing happens, but it doesn’t look good, especially when Rachel discovers she is pregnant several months later. Suspicion falls on the brother ‘Mr. Will’ (Liam Aiken) and he is told he must leave the community. An immediate marriage is arranged for Rachel, who insists that she is pregnant by immaculate conception and has not ‘sinned’. Rachel is convinced that the blue tape is somehow responsible for her pregnancy, and that the man singing on the tape must be the father. She decides to run away rather than submit to an arranged marriage, and steals the family truck to drive to the nearest city where she plans to start her search for the singer on the tape. Unbeknown to Rachel, Mr. Will had been hiding in the back of the truck and had been brought along for the ride.
Once in the city she meets Clyde (Rory Culkin) outside a club and is intrigued by his friends who are in a band. Thinking that the guitarist might be the father of her child she convinces Clyde to allow her to stay with him. Mr.Will attempts to intervene but ultimately ends up going along as well. Clyde and his friends are a dissolute bunch of skaters and musicians whose behavior begins to have an influence on Mr. Will, though not so much on Rachel. Julie Garner’s performance is fantastic, Rachel is naive and lovely without ever being overbearing or sickly, she manages to capture Rachel’s humble and gentle nature perfectly. Julie Garner was also in The Perks of a Being a Wallflower, which I haven’t seen yet, and I would be interested to see how the performances compare. She certainly has a fresh-faced innocence here that is perfect for coming of age movies; I imagine she probably would have been quite good in Juno, or something like that. She’s definitely one to watch.
Liam Aiken delivers an excellent performance as Mr.Will, who comes across as an awkward and perhaps prickly young boy. He is far less sympathetic than Clyde, perhaps because he is younger, and it is amusing how he is reluctantly swayed by the behaviour of others. Rory Culkin offers a sensitive portrayal of Clyde, who is lonely and seems to be cut adrift in the world. After a falling out with his parents he lives alone in a small flat and gradually begins to build a relationship with Rachel. The relationship between Clyde and Rachel was what really hooked me on this film. They are both vulnerable, in bad situations and both very young. There is no one to guide them, and they must do their best to help each other. Their intimate conversations late at night, especially one where Clyde says he will be Rachel’s ‘husband’ if she can’t find the father is touching. You begin to see the way they care for each other in every small action. Often without dialogue it is possible to work out the thought process the characters are going through.
As already discussed with Sofia Cuppola’s films, I like intimate portraits – and maybe there’s something voyeuristic about watching what people do when alone but there was plenty of that sort of thing in this film, and I think that’s why I enjoyed it. To watch Clyde chain smoking in his room, or see Rachel driving to somewhere she has never been shows vulnerability. It’s sort of sad to watch them suffer in private moments, but makes me feel better as well – as if I have formed solidarity with the characters and then I am happy when things start to get better for them.
Rebecca Thomas is Mormon, so I was intrigued as to how she would portray this community on screen. Although she did not grow up in a fundamentalist community like the one shown in the film she had observed it while visiting her grandparents in Utah. Some things do seem to be very negative; arranging a marriage for a fifteen year old girl is highly dubious, as is the way Mr.Will is cast from the community for an action that both he and Rachel deny vehemently. For a community that preaches a doctrine of forgiveness, these are not very forgiving actions, and merely seem to cover up one mistake with another. However, at the beginning of the film Rachel appears to be very happy in her community, and there is no reason to think this would have changed if she had not come up against a difficult decision. In the outside world God continues to have an influence in her life, and she continues to pray and believe that her pregnancy is a miracle and the will of God. I think Rebecca Thomas offers no particular judgment; she presents the Mormon community respectfully, as she has seen it, and leaves us to make our own decision.
Electrick Children does have its strange points. When I read the synopsis about a girl who supposedly gets pregnant from a song I was highly skeptical. The film offers no kind of explanation for this other than immaculate conception. This is surreal, and I suppose I was expecting traces of a concealed relationship, sexual abuse or rape but the film just doesn’t offer any hint of an explanation at all. Apart from the tape. Although the film could easily have been a lot darker, Rebecca Thomas instead decides to keep it all quite innocent which does feel a little odd at times. Having said all this the film is beautifully shot, it has a dreamy ethereal quality, and plot foibles aside I knew that I would enjoy it as soon as I saw the trailer.