As long as religion is so preoccupied with queerness, queer artists must reckon with religion. While the closeted zealot trope may be played out at this point, it seems every sect wants its shot at the clandestine queer romance. Of course, there is plenty of Sapphic fun to be mined from the queering of rituals, sacrifice, and self-flagellation, as with the sensual tension of recent entries like “Disobedience” or the outrageous heresy of “Benedetta.” More somber entries into the sub-genre include 2018’s conversion therapy duo of “Boy Erased” and “The Miseducation of Cameron Post.”
Amidst such a crowded field, the Jehovah’s Witness drama “You Can Live Forever” doesn’t quite stand out, short of opening a door into one of the lesser explored religious sects. Though the well-crafted film makes use of a unique regional setting for some moving moments, its straightforward approach to well-worn territory offers few surprises. Set in 1990s Quebec, “You Can Live Forever” follows a teenage girl who becomes involved with a devout Jehovah’s Witness after being sent to live with religious family. Written and directed by Sarah Watts and Mark Slutsky, and based on Watts’ upbringing, “You Can Live Forever” isn’t bound to resonate past audiences with a personal connection to the material.
The story follows teenager Jaime (Anwen O’Driscoll), a loner who listens to Siouxsie and the Banshees and tokes up on the train. Following her father’s death, her bereft mother sends her to temporarily live with her Aunt Beth (Liane Balaban) and her husband Jean Francois, both devout Jehovah’s Witnesses. Though Beth appears loving and generally easygoing, she gently makes it clear that attending church, or “meeting,” is non-negotiable. Despite having to ditch her black sweatshirt and jeans for a dowdy floral dress, she still gets the once-over from Marike (June Laporte), the minister’s daughter.
Marike is a true believer, and her religious fervor is only matched by her ardent desire to make Jaime her new best friend. She invites Jaime over for dinner, where her family attempts to sway Jaime towards “the truth.” Though Jaime remains skeptical, her interest in Marike is stronger, and she even goes door-knocking as a way of spending more time with her. Throughout multiple sleepovers, they cuddle and get closer, protected from suspicion under the cloak of religious naivete.
Lured into a false sense of security and blinded by that first-rush of hormones, they become more brazen. When a full-blown romance begins, it’s only a matter of time before someone catches on. The punishment is not as severe as it could have been, and mercifully “You Can Live Forever” eschews some of the more extreme tropes of religious dramas. The film understands that the real drama, the tragedy of a young person denying themself love in the name of god, needs no embellishment. Marike’s commitment to “the truth” never waivers, and her story ends where Jaime’s begins.
Though the beats of the narrative are fairly predictable and the dialogue verges on cliche, “You Can Live Forever” funnels the vast Canadian landscapes and specific period details into a cohesive visual language. A timely cut to green Jello cubes at dinner offers a breath of humor, and the sweeping coastlines and lush greenery are about as dramatic a backdrop one could hope for a grand love story. In tone and subject matter, the film feels in line with its 1992 setting; it may be faithful to a fault, but it’s an impressive craft achievement. Still, the only thing distinguishing it from queer films of yore are a few steamily chaste make-outs and furtive backseat grinding sessions.
The performances range in believability and appeal, though the actresses share enough chemistry for the earnest teen romance to translate. Jaime lights up in scenes with her non-religious friend Nathan (Hasani Freeman), who loosens her up with his naturally playful manner. Despite their stoner video game sessions doing much of the heavy lifting to give Jaime a personality, she remains a fairly opaque protagonist to project the story onto. Still, she’s likable enough that her decision to move forward in life feels celebratory. Her commitment to live her own truth never waivers, and her spirit can rest easy knowing that.
Good Deed Entertainment will release “You Can Live Forever” in limited theaters and on demand on Friday, May 5.