There's nothing fresh about a teenage Mormon growing frustrated with her repressed community, but writer-director Rebecca Thomas turns that outline into an unlikely crowdpleaser with her feature-length debut, "Electrick Children." Impressive newcomer Julia Garner stars as soul-searching 15-year-old Rachel McKnight, who flees her fundamentalist surroundings once convinced that a catchy pop rock melody has knocked her up.
That's right: Discovering a tape in basement of her extended family's home, Rachel hugs the speaker to her ear and experiences a transcendence so powerful that she asserts, with cheery naivete, that music has provided a line from god to her womb. "It's a miracle!" she announces to her befuddled mother, much to the older woman's chagrin. She receives an easy out from the cold spiritual father (Billy Zane) of the polygamous colony through an arranged marriage. Instead, plucky Rachel nabs the family pickup and heads to Las Vegas in the hopes of tracking down the singer on her seemingly magical tape.
The ensuing adventure, which finds Rachel exploring new secular territory while her zealot communal sibling Mr. Will (Liam Aiken) attempts to lure her back, threatens to become a fictionalized "Amish in the City" romp. But that's hardly the smart, gently humorous story Thomas manages to deliver. It's a minor work entirely satisfying for that same reason.
In Vegas, Rachel abruptly meets young party boy Clyde (Rory Culkin, hinting at newfound maturity with this focused role), whose drunken gang encourages Rachel and Mr. Will to hop in their van and explore the night. The ensuing romance that develops between Rachel and Mr. Will would be outright implausible if not for their mutual alienation for their surroundings: Clyde, a rebellious kid intent on rejecting his wealthy suburban roots, finds an underlying parallel in Rachel's own insular background. It's a match made in heaven--except, of course, that Rachel has another heavenly match in mind for herself.
Although Rachel's original family never has her best interests at heart, the script presents their side of the story in a dispiritingly facile manner, leading to a murky first act that makes the far more impressive later scenes stand out. Both Clyde and Mr. Will provide the ideal balance to Rachel's individualism, with Clyde guiding her toward a sober vision of the world and Mr. Will stumbling alongside, possibly on a self-discovery mission of his own. The great Bill Sage rounds out the cast in a bit part as musician from the tape.
While maintaining an amusing concept and sustained by the thoroughly sweet nature of its young protagonists, "Electrick Children" pulls of the neat trick of maintaining credibility, never allowing the magic realist hook to devolve into quirky American indie clichés. However, "Electrick Children" does rely on stereotypes from the coming-of-age drama, but it funnels them through the appearance of serious dramatic intentions.
Elegantly shot to accentuate the open vistas of the Utah desert and bright neon landscapes of the urban scenes, the movie turns its settings into characters as complicated as Rachel's conundrum. And because the world feels real, it's enough to make her curious bun in the oven into an intriguing conceit that's earnestly moving, mainly because she finally has a belief worthy of her scrutiny--and ours.
Criticwire grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Set to make its U.S. premiere at SXSW next month, 'Electrick Children' is likely to play well to that audience, but seems destined for a small theatrical release and under-the-radar VOD reception.