The “immaculate conception” and the “virgin birth” of Jesus are often confused and improperly interchanged. They are not one in the same, and it’s wholly improper to say that the Virgin Mary had an immaculate conception in getting some ghost seed up in her belly what gave form to Jesus. That’s the virgin birth, i.e., Mary had herself a son of God while remaining a virgin. The immaculate conception, meanwhile, is doctrine that says Mary was born free of original sin (so she was immaculate from the time of conception), whereas most of us heathens need some good baptizing to get the Original Sin washed off of us.
This lesson on biblical phraseology is brought to you by Electrick Children, a film about a virgin birth wrongly described as an immaculate conception. In Electrick Children, we meet Rachel (Julia Garner), a young girl living on a small Mormon compound. While Rachel is innocent and sweet and seemingly committed to the quiet and pious ways within which her family has raised her, there is no real suggestion that she, herself, was of an immaculate conception. In any event, after a night spent listening to a blasphemous cassette tape of The Nerve’s “Don’t Leave Me Hanging On the Telephone” (a song perhaps more well-known for its Blondie remake), Rachel finds herself left hanging with a belly-ful of baby. Or, as another character later put it more succinctly, “the song filled her with a Jesus baby.” The film gives you just enough to doubt that this is really a virgin pregnancy (which is her parents’ point of view, that she’s not carrying a Jesus baby but a dirty, sinful baby made of adolescent shenanigans), but that’s not really the point. What the viewer or anyone else believes doesn’t matter because what does matter is that Rachel believes she’s got some Jesus baby up in her. And it’s because of this belief that she flees her home on the day of her quickly arranged cover-it-up marriage to head off to Las Vegas to find the movie’s fictionalized singer of “Don’t Leave Me Hanging On the Telephone,” who she believes might the baby’s “father.”
If it sounds a little ridiculous, it is. So is the fact that she’s accidentally accompanied on the trip by her brother, Mr. Will (Liam Aiken), and that the pair wind up crashing in Vegas with Clyde (Rory Culkin) and his disaffected youths druggie friends. From there, the movie becomes a mix of both a coming-of-age and duck-out-of-water story, blended with a few pinches of road-tripping for extra flavor. It feels very much like your typical “indie” fare, a low budget movie with a kind of twee, wholly implausible plot involving characters who are just hyper-realized enough to be largely unbelievable. And just as those kind of of indie flicks are very hit and miss, so too is Electrick Children, though its hits surpass its misses.
Where writer/director Rebecca Thomas clearly hits is with the direction. The film is gorgeously shot in a way that doesn’t try to hide from its low budget but wholly embraces it. Thomas has a nice eye for detail, both with what’s front and center as well as with what’s going on in the periphery or even fully hiding background. For example, the discomfort and unease Rachel feels when she attends a rock show in Vegas (which is not at all what she expected) is shot wonderfully and presented sharply in the grey tone between serious and satirical. It’s a really well-played moment, although Thomas is helped greatly by Garner, who plays the scene quietly, yet perfectly, culminating with her rumination on whether what she’s just heard is really music. But my favorite “moment” of the film may be a nice little background touch Thomas throws into a quick pharmacy scene — while Rachel and her mom are the shot’s focus, buying a pregnancy test, we see another woman in the background grabbing a test of her own and quickly tossing it into her cart before her presumably judgmental neighbors notice. Little flourishing moments like this help to visually flesh out the world and the film as a whole offers some great imagery combined with crisp pacing. In fact, I only found myself questioning one choice Thomas made through the film, which was to gives us perhaps one scene too many at the end.
But maybe that’s more of a writing issue than a directing issue, which fits with the fact that where Thomas really misses in this film is with a key aspect of the writing side of things. It’s not that the film is poorly written — it’s got a compelling enough story and features some great lines of dialogue. The problem is that a lot of the characters make a lot of decisions that don’t quite make sense based on what we’re given. That is, these decisions simply don’t make sense or, if they do make sense, we haven’t been given enough to really understand their underlying motivations. I often take notes while watching a film I know I’ll be reviewing and at least half of my notes from watching Electrick Children are questions about character motivation — ultimately, it winds up feeling like a book adaptation that just couldn’t get a lot of the necessary character exposition onto the screen.
This was enough of a problem that it started to become a big distraction, but every time I was at risk of being lost by the film and one question too many, I was quickly roped back in by the performances. Culkin is wonderful as always (you’ve seen his outstanding performances in You Can Count On Me and Igby Goes Down, right?), but Julia Garner, she’s the real deal here. Garner is a newcomer who just debuted in last years’ Martha Marcy May Marlene and here, given the chance to shine in a lead role, she takes the reins and runs. She plays up Rachel’s innocence in a way that, as I noted earlier, is indeed a bit hyper-realized, but which is also wholly charming, endearing and funny. Thomas shoots Garner radiantly and has given Garner one hell of an acting reel for future gigs — I expect we’ll be seeing a lot of her in the coming years. And while Garner and Culkin steal the film, the rest of the cast is also quite good, with the surprising standout being The Phantom, himself, Billy Zane. The audience in my screening actually audibly chuckled when Zane’s name came up in the opening credits, but Zane made them eat their laughs. He plays Rachel’s father, the head of the compound and, given that description and the fact that it’s Billy Zane, you’d expect him to be this over-the-top zealot or two-faced hypocrite. But Zane instead gives us a very nuanced and pitch-perfect performance of a character that isn’t any of that. It’s such a good performance that I find myself actually now welcoming a Zane comeback (I know he never really left but, come on, his IMDB page is a straight-to-DVD disaster).
The funny thing about Electrick Children is that, while I was lukewarm-to-positive on it when I walked out of the theater, my affection for it has grown with the space of a few weeks between my viewing and this writing. With time, the problems with the character motivations, while obviously still there, have faded to the background and I find myself ruminating more on the performances and visuals. In that sense, I guess it’s kind of a perfect indie film. And perhaps more importantly, it’s a strong debut for Thomas. We desperately need more strong-voiced female filmmakers, and Thomas shows great promise with this film. Hopefully, Electrick Children is but the first step in a long and healthy career for Thomas, as it surely is for Garner.
Electrick Children had its North American premiere at South by Southwest 2012 (it originally premiered in Berlin). Watch carefully, it might just leave you hanging with a Jesus baby.