Electrick Children is a film that’s opened overseas but is premiering in the U.S. at the AFI’s Film Fest 2012. From first-time director Rebecca Thomas, it is a story about religion, miracles, immaculate conception, rock and roll and teen-angst, all wrapped up into 96 minutes.
The basic premise is intriguing. “Rachel” (Garner) is a 15-year-old girl living a quiet, somewhat primitive lifestyle with her fundamentalist Mormon family in Utah. Since it’s her 15th birthday, her father “Paul” (Zane), along with older brother “Mister Will” (Aiken), are interviewing her and recording the interview on a cassette recorder. Rachel is obsessed with the recorder and sneaks into the basement to use it. She finds a strange blue tape on it and there is, gasp, music on that tape. The song happens to be “Don’t Leave Me Hanging on the Telephone” by The Nerves. She is enraptured.
She also finds herself miraculously pregnant. When this news gets out to her parents, immediate plans are made to marry her off to a proper youth of the community. But the story is more complicated. Her mother saw her and Mister Will fighting over the cassette and it looked like Mister Will might have had intercourse with her. He didn’t. However, they don’t know that, so he is to be exiled the next day. As a result, he’s sleeping in the back of their one vehicle when Rachel takes off in it and heads for Las Vegas in search of whoever was singing that song. This all leads to a moderately interesting resolution, but doesn’t make this a great. Or even good one.
Garner is perfectly cast as the innocent Rachel who doesn’t know the dangers she’s facing in meeting boys older than her in a city like Las Vegas. Seeing that side of Vegas, a side we don’t usually see in films set there is slightly interesting, but when you look at the seedy side of a city, ultimately they are all pretty much the same in appearance and experience. Culkin is adequate as the boy whose troubled relationship with his family has him in the right place to encounter and get involved with Rachel.
Thomas seems to want to put the audience on edge, to make them feel some discomfort in exploring the issues projected on the screen. There’s a feeling as though you were listening to fingernails being dragged across a chalkboard for much of the first two acts. It doesn’t so much plod, as it explores slowly, carefully what should be a headlong rush of two teens suddenly exposed to the outside world. For some reason she seems to think that the sight of women urinating is an important theme or device, for there are no fewer than four separate sequences where one of the main female characters is sitting down to relieve herself. The one time where Rachel needs the urine for a pregnancy test is understandable. The other shots of this add nothing to the film.
In the end, the good stuff in the third act can’t make up for what you are forced to endure to get there. All the loose ends are tied up nicely and there’s a clichéd ending for those who like that sort of thing. A good debut. But not a good film.