Writer-director, Rebecca Thomas, brought more than a handful of her own background to Electrick Children. Her 2012 feature, an eclectic surprise I might add, was founded through extensive research, which was meant to amount to a documentary. The religious community that is depicted in the film, finds use of such material efficiently here.
Raised as a Mormon herself, Thomas ignites her experience appropriately in her screenplay, nothing is shoved down anyone’s throat. So to speak. And in directing, she finds plenty of space to offer a concoction of deep character intrigue, some minor bouts of drama, and some bittersweet comic tones.
Electrick Children opens with a girl, just turning fifteen, facing the next chapter of her Mormon upbringing in a Utah village. Rachel (Julia Garner), is timid and sheltered, she should not be mistaken for having little intelligence or common sense. Rachel has pretty much not seen any parts of the world for herself, so when she does flee, her sponge-like curiosity and ambition expand beyond her own expectations.
The reason for her “escape”? Well, her intrigue in a portable tape recorder used to record a conversation in the opening scene, and thus discovering it at night in her brother’s room. Said sibling, referred to as Mr. Will (Liam Aiken), attempts to forbid such a device reaching her grasp. That is is for God, the blue cassette tape inside, or something like that.
Of course, Rachel is far too crafty and determined to let that go. Pressing ‘play’ and hearing the music, in this case a weird rock version of “Hanging on the Telephone”, is like gaining another sense for Rachel. Mr. Will and Rachel squabble and tussle, the mother walks in on him on top of her, and two and two makes five.
The realization, soon after, that Rachel is pregnant, blows everything out of proportion (we know there was no sexual activity between the siblings). Truth is, Rachel is adamant that the conception was as a result of listening to the cassette. Honest.
This very notion of immaculate conception, was on the creative cards for Rebecca Thomas when she wrote it. Rachel is living through a modern take on the Virgin Mary herself. Thomas’ skill as a filmmaker is keeping Electrick Children grounded, even with the blatant whiff of the scripture.
So, Mr. Will is banished from the community. And when Rachel is arranged to be wed, she makes a dart for it. Taking the very truck in which her brother was sleeping, and they both head for Last Vegas. And that’s not even the half of it.
The bright lights and outlandish behaviour that befall them, forms a resilient telling of self-and-world discovery. Liberated, Rachel tags along with a bunch of young skater boys / musician wannabes – including Rory Culkin. And Electrick Children doesn’t lose its spark with the change of scenery, only refines it.
It’s an illuminating journey for Rachel. A new world in which she keeps her balance, despite the unfamiliar surroundings and her enigmatic pregnancy. Mr. Will, meanwhile, is at first eager to do right thing, to go back to the community in Utah with Rachel. But he too succumbs to a more social way of life offered in Vegas.
Even when it’s narrative path is somewhat paved with foreseeable stepping stones, Electrick Children maintains a magnetic glow. Rachel follows her heart and her gut – the man’s voice on the tape, a red Mustang from her mother’s nighttime story. And there’s a noble strength in her just wanting to find a father figure for her divine child.
Director Rebecca Thomas mixes drama with comedy in fluid style. I mean, there’s some hard themes here, but still she manages to deliver the odd quirk and imperfection into her characters. Thomas handles her tale with care, and avoids a heavy set of religious pointers or moral high ground.
Electrick Children follows a whimsical, wholesome journey, coming full circle by the end. Only by this point, Rachel has a fresher outlook of we own life and the world surrounding her. Standing her ground, making her own decisions, and ultimately doing things on her own terms, pays off.
The supporting cast offer their own brand of valuable presence to proceedings. Liam Aiken and Rory Culkin both demonstrate successfully why they tend to be cast in these kind of roles. Billy Zane and Bill Sage have their moments too. Zane’s refined man of God is an impressive under-play, while Sage brings a clumsy reality to the final act. Perhaps, then, it is Cynthia Watros as Rachel’s loyal mother, who provides the heartfelt underlay.
Of course, this is pretty much Julia Garner’s film. The actress could have ran wild with this kind of free spirit, but instead keeps her feet on the ground, and big, wondrous eyes to the sky. Garner’s performance is a measured display of a girl with seemingly nothing mapped out, even in the rigid way she was raised. A terrifically assured turn from the young actress, with the face and temperament to perfectly fit the part, as well as the film’s fluent visuals.