In Them That Follow, 17-year-old Mara (Alice Englert) has no privacy.
She spends nearly all day with her neighbor and friend, younger teen Dilly (Kaitlyn Dever, who had a great South by Southwest between her supporting role in this film and her co-starring role in Booksmart). The owner of the area’s one small store, Hope (Best Actress Olivia Colman), keeps a close eye on the girls at all times. The boy who wants to marry her, Garret (Lewis Pullman), comes by her home nearly every night.
And her father Lemuel (the perfectly cast Walton Goggins), the religious leader of their community, expects obedience from her, full stop. Mara is to believe in their faith, she is to remain in the fold, and she is to further their religious practice of snake handling within her own family, once she marries and has children. That is the way of life in this hidden mountain enclave of Appalachia, where Lemuel and his followers have sequestered themselves from the rest of society, from people who look down on their particular sect of American Pentecostalism, and Mara is to hold the line.
For years, Mara has been the ideal daughter: she washes dishes, she mends clothes, she cooks dinner. And she is truly a believer in the practice of snake handling as a legitimate way to honor God, an idea gleaned from the Biblical passage:
“And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.”
In their community, it is Lemuel who does this at every service, who plucks rattlesnakes out of the wooden boxes where they’re kept and drapes them over people’s bodies as a way to heal them or test their faith—two opposing ideas, it seems, but each worthy of the serpent. And Lemuel himself speaks in tongues, oversees weddings and funerals, is truly a leader in every sense of the word. Everyone else in this community is a follower. Lemuel is the center of the universe.
The only person who seems out of step with everyone else is Mara’s best friend, Augie (Thomas Mann), born to the devout Hope, who joined Lemuel’s church after many hard years (suggested by her tattoos), and her husband Zeke (a heavily bearded Jim Gaffigan). Mara and Augie grew up together, but while she still believes in her father and in the religion, he plans to leave, to abandon this entire way of life. God has never spoken to him, Augie says, and he doesn’t have the faith Mara does.
What will Mara do? Filmmakers and screenwriters Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage make clear that Mara’s options are limited, and almost entirely dictated by men. She’s meant to follow Lemuel until she agrees to a husband, and if that’s Garret, then she’s meant to follow him—the film underlines this gendered hierarchy with a scene in which she bows before Garret to wash his feet. And even in her friendship with Augie, their difference in religious belief puts Mara at the disadvantage, ostracizing her from others for her bond to him as he turns his back on everyone else.
So much of Them That Follow is, as I said to TK during a particularly harrowing scene, “white people” shit. Things get rough in this nearly uninhabitable country! Rattlesnakes are not meant to be messed with! An electronic bonesaw comes out at one point! But the isolation of this community, its insularity, is realistic and purposeful, and Poulton and Savage effectively build a solid sense of place that is alternately appealing and repellant. Lemuel is a loving but authoritative father, but his doctrine has no grey. Why that would appeal to someone like Hope makes sense, and why it would drive Augie away makes sense, too—questions about second chances and personal choice come up often in Them That Follow, and the film doesn’t judge those looking for the former or yearning for the latter.
There are long stretches where the film takes its time letting you see Mara work out the possibilities for her future in this barren place, where cinematographer Brett Jutkiewicz focuses on Englert’s face as she struggles with a series of nearly impossible choices, and Them That Follow benefits both from her silently strong performance and the work of cast mates Goggins, Colman, and Dever in particular. One scene toward the end of the film, where others become increasingly aware of Mara’s desperation, is perfectly done in how it switches between character perspectives, offering an opportunity for everyone to speak their piece, allowing long-held frustrations and suspicions to come to the forefront.
Two lines of dialogue in Them That Follow effectively capture this film both as Mara’s coming-of-age story and as the portrait of an insular community resistant to change: “There are limits to what I’ll let you do to me,” Mara says to a man, and “We’re all being tested,” another community member opines. Them That Follow doesn’t judge its characters, but expands the depiction of American Pentecostalism that we’ve briefly glimpsed in other pop culture like The X-Files, True Detective, and Justified, and centers the role of a woman within it. How to maintain individuality in a place that is intent on obedience rather than free will? How to practice one’s faith when faced with doubt? The film lets Mara, and us, decide for ourselves.
Header Image Source: SXSW