Okay, first of all, is anyone enamoured by purposefully misspelled words anymore? Seriously. Just because a ‘k’ has a sharper sound (and shape) than a ‘c’ does not make it cool to play add-or-replace. And even if Electrick Children as a title is supposed to be a pun around the word ‘trick’… it doesn’t work. More precisely, it doesn’t have relevance. So yeah, the name of this film is pretty poor. A shame really, because Electric Children is a great title.
Right, with that out of the way, on to the film.
Electrick Children, the debut feature by writer/director Rebecca Thomas, tells the tale of 15 year-old ‘colony’ member Rachel (Julia Garner, also seen earlier this year in sinister-commune gem Martha Marcy May Marlene). Raised in rural Utah by her parents (Billy Zane and her-from-Lost Cynthia Watros) amongst what appears to be an intimidating number of siblings, it’s a Mormon style existence, until she becomes intrigued by a tape player.
Sneaking into a forbidden place, she plays a blue cassette which features a cover version of Blondie’s “Hanging On The Telephone”. She comes to believe the experience has made her pregnant. With God’s child. As the parents react with suitable horror, arranging a convenient marriage, Rachel decides it might be time to leave the safety of her home and, stealing a truck, heads to Las Vegas to find the singer from the cassette recording. Once in Vegas, and pursued by her brother ‘Mr’ Will (Liam Aiken), Rachel discovers a community of indie music, skateboarding and transient living. Her reluctant guide to these new thrills is a long-haired lad named Clyde (Rory Culkin).
As anyone who has either seen the trailer or made it through that rather wordy synopsis might’ve guessed by now, this is indie filmmaking. Rebecca Thomas embraces this definition, and the film wears it like a badge of honour, ticking boxes along the way. Recognisable but largely unknown starlets? Check. A couple of once-were-more-popular actors in supporting roles? Check. Vague allusions to some larger mystical plan at work in the plot? Check. Montage to a cool song you don’t really know that well? Check. Intended blurred focus shots and occasional dislocation of sound and image? Check. Check. Check. All that’s missing is Patricia Clarkson.
I’m a fan and champion of low-budget filmmaking, generally preferring smaller stories told with more thought than your standard blockbuster showboating. Electrick Children looked, before I’d seen it, like a shrewd attempt to cash-in on that ‘quirky’ brand of indie-cool. Whether the motives for making the film were shrewd or not remain completely moot. I suspect they weren’t as the film feels genuine. Thomas’ direction is slightly derivative to be sure (Larry Clarke’s kids, Steven Soderbergh’s The Limey being just two clear points of reference), however you also get the sense that she isn’t just coasting. It is assured work, and the story is obviously important to her. This film feels like a labour of love. And it frequently looks just beautiful.
With a lot of the work resting on her young shoulders, Garner proves herself more than up to the task in a role that could very easily have slipped into wide-eyed prairie-girl cliché. But the film acknowledges the stereotype, and allows Garner the time to round the character into a believable person. Likewise Rory Culkin proves far more likeable than I’d have expected following his turn in Scre4m last year.
The film works best when it attempts to capture the dangerous energy of first times. By making Rachel such a naïve character, Thomas is able to strongly evoke that sense of discovery at teenage milestones. The smell of warm beer and the sticky floors of first-gigs. The fluttering heartbeats of a first kiss. The neglect and busyness of student digs. The echoes of their halls. In this extended stretch in the middle of the film Thomas finds her stride, as the children explore the sun-blushed Vegas suburbs and skate parks. It’s a glorious trip back to that precipice of youth and the inevitable plunge toward adulthood.
The film shifts gears noticeably as it enters the third act, however. After such an enjoyable languid run-up, Thomas seems to cram in plot-points for the finale, upping the tempo, and it’s a little jarring. Events seem a little too easily strung together, yet at the same time oddly unfinished. One wonders if proper resolution has been sacrificed in favour of preserving a sense of ambiguity. The larger mystical plan hinted at earlier from the indie checklist. Either way it kinda works. The ending is fitting, with a couple of nice payoffs, so that the sugar high of Electrick Children doesn’t vaporise once the comedown has worn off.
Thomas can be proud of her film, which is a good, solid start to – hopefully – a very promising career. If she can balance her plotting out a little better, and if she can get Patricia Clarkson involved, the next one might be even indier.