Of the 35 or so films I saw at SXSW this year, the one that kept cropping up in conversation was Rebecca Thomas’ “Electrick Children.” Surely, the killer cover of Blondie's "Hanging On the Telephone," which plays a major part of the film, is partially why it can't be easily shaken from memory, but there's also a bit of an ambitious highwire act going on for the first-time writer/director that sets it apart in making a film relying on a certain degree of spirituality to driving its narrative while at the same time being deeply skeptical of it.
Rachel doesn’t know what skepticism is when she's first introduced in the film on a dusty ranch somewhere in Utah. One of a deeply religious family's litter on the fringe of civilization, she's unaware of what lies beyond its borders, except for the stories told by her mother (Cynthia Watros) and the beat up tape recorder that the group's leader (Billy Zane) records her prayers on for posterity. There’s a pick-up truck parked out front, but it’s a question whether anyone but the elders know what it’s for and with little else to be intrigued by at 15, the tapes pique Rachel's interest and despite her brother Mr. Will's (Liam Aiken) vigilance in protecting them in the male-dominated community.
He has good reason to be. Rachel, played by Julia Garner, the same blond, frizzy-haired innocent who was last seen being indoctrinated into John Hawkes’ cult in “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” is forever changed when she stumbles across a baby blue cassette carrying the aforementioned Blondie track. From the expression on her face, it's likely the first orgasmic experience she's ever had and finally free of the protection of her elders, it's only natural she discovers shortly after that she's pregnant.
Seemingly ridiculous on its face – after all, what kind of child would result from half-human/half-musical DNA? — the immaculate conception is the boldest stroke of Thomas' film, but also one that sets up a certain level of disappointment when it settles into the more indie-centric story of Rachel trading one family for another. Driven off the Utah compound by the threat of an arranged marriage by her father, Rachel leaves with Mr. Will for Las Vegas, a place Thomas imagines as a Neverland for a ragtag group of teens, led by Rory Culkin’s Clyde, who exist as lost boys, playing games like “I Have Never Ever…” when hanging out in hotel backrooms with nary a parent in sight if not outside flying around the local skate parks.
Although Thomas doesn’t set out to tell a fairy tale, there’s magic in these early moments of “Electrick Children” and the filmmaker is smart to let them go unexplained. Rachel’s pregnancy is never really questioned, nor the reason behind it, and her immediate acceptance into Clyde’s clan is handled with the same degree of simplicity as she likely sees the world. However, the reality sets in for Rachel and the film once Rachel realizes she’ll inevitably have to grow up, probably in the form of returning home to make amends, and combined with a growing investigation to discover the origins of the tape, both get mired in situations that reek of audience-pandering reassurances of resolution and wackiness in the final act that the film takes pains to avoid in the early going.
Ironically, it’s the sunnier sequences of “Electrick Children” that feel the most downcast. In the time Rachel spends anywhere near the ranch, her religious upbringing becomes analogous to the oppressive desert heat and the story appears to be more exposed in the harsh light of day at the film’s beginning and end. Yet at night the film comes alive, the Vegas outskirts shown as a playground where even without any money Rachel and Clyde can feel free, illuminated by the cinematography of Mattias Troelstrup who basks in the moonlight as if it were heaven. For Rachel, of course, it is, since it seems to offer endless possibilities and the biggest charge from “Electrick Children” is the feeling that the sky is similarly limitless for its writer/director Thomas, even if this first film doesn’t quite reach the same transcendent highs as its main character experiences.