Dir: Daniel Kokotajlo
It may not sound like the most inviting proposition; bearing witness to the damage religion can do to a family’s interpersonal relationships. But in the hands of debut writer-director Daniel Kokotajlo, it’s a gripping and powerful experience. Because this film’s targets prove to be broader than the beliefs of just one faith.
Molly Wright plays Alex, a teenage Jehovah’s Witness, whose life was saved, as a baby, by blood transfusion. Such tampering with the sanctity of the lifeblood being against their teachings, she’s now made it clear on her medical record that any such ‘meddling’ is utterly forbidden. Regardless of how desperately it might be needed. And such devout devotion makes her mum Ivanna (Siobhan Finneran) very, very proud.
Ivanna is prouder still when Alex is willing to couple up with Steven (Robert Emms), the brand new ‘elder’ at their church (actually a young and thoroughly decent type). Meantime, older sister Luisa (Sacha Parkinson) is getting tempted down a quite different path. As she matures into her late teens, and the uncharted territory of higher education, she’s starting to mix with boys from the outside world …with ruinous results.
As the impact of her actions reverberates through household and church, despite the subject matter, it’s never an oppressive watch. The movie gathers a quiet power, and one that continues to grow after viewing. The decision to follow the point of view of one character in the opening act is devastatingly effective, all the more hard-hitting when the plot casts us adrift from those moorings. Thereafter we’re uncomfortable in Luisa’s company; she’s an outsider expelled for the sin of fornication, after all. Conversely, mother Ivanna simply doesn’t let anyone in through her impenetrable defences. So we’re forced to coldly observe her unwavering adherence to her principles from afar, even as it, slowly but surely, rips her family apart.
Siobhan Finneran’s maternal turn is quite brilliant; one of unfathomably steely resolve, even as her own unshakeable mindset destroys all she holds dear. The tones this coruscating drama is painted in are all dull browns and dirty yellows: a drabness reflecting a refusal to enjoy the colours of life, forever waiting instead for the lush paradise that is sure to come …later. Always later.
On the surface, of course, this is an examination of the potential harm of the strictures of the Jehovah’s Witness denomination. But wider, more importantly, it exposes the painful truth that any belief system can repress those who choose to follow it. And to a greater or lesser extent, we’re all victims of that. Religious or not, we carry around our little sureties, keeping ‘safe’ in the familiar, unconsciously choosing to stay blinkered, closed to the fresh possibilities of new experience.
This assured first feature might not deliver the stirring climax we feel we’ve been promised (arguably mirroring the subject), but its residual force is unmistakably benevolent. It may or may not be intended as a shaming of a specific church, and a statement during the credits confirms that it’s not been approved by the official body of Jehovah’s Witnesses. It’s obviously no surprise they’re not willing to undergo their own Apostasy to consider this heartfelt parable. But every single soul does have the choice to be open to its humane lesson. Or not.
★ ★ ★ ★