Rachel is the 15-year-old daughter of a Mormon preacher, and a strict adherent to a faith that requires her to dress Amish-style, accept absolutely the rule of her father (Billy Zane) and swear off technology entirely. But when the apple arrives in her Eden-like existence, in the form of a cassette recorder and a single blue tape, Rachel's curiosity trumps her piety for once, and she seeks it out, ending up experiencing a moment of knee-trembling ecstasy simply by listening to an illicit cover version of "Hanging on the Telephone" by Blondie. When she is discovered to be pregnant some short time later, she believes the song caused her to immaculately conceive; her mother, who has a more prosaic secret of her own, lays the blame at the door of Rachel's brother, Mr. Will, who is duly banished, while a hasty marriage is arranged for Rachel. Brother and sister run away to Vegas, Rachel trying to track down the voice on the tape who she is convinced is the father of her child, Mr Will desperate to get a confession from Rachel that will clear his name, allow him to return and restore his preacher-in-waiting status.
Her scenes with Clyde make this clear, with Culkin especially subtle and impressive in their shared quiet moments; a broken boy whose better nature recognises his shot at redemption even before he does. The "marriage" scene is a lovely case in point: it's a touching, tender, funny two-hander that brims with a tentative trust no less endearing for being a slice of impetuous pie in the sky. Aiken, with a stiffer role and a less engrossing arc, may not get many of these touching moments to himself, but he plays Mr. Will with a gentle integrity that keeps him from just being the comic foil with feet of clay compared to his transcendent sister. But the twists and happenstance coincidences that the film relies on, as so often with this sort of magic realism, become actually problematic in its third act, with deus ex machina reveals and acts of, possibly, God conspiring to get everyone who matters into a single car, with a single mission in the closing minutes. It's too pat, and feels too written and directed, creating a schism between us and the characters we've invested so much in to that point. And seeing as the film has up till then skilfully tempered its sweet fluffiness with darker elements (this is a story marked by teen pregnancy, incest allegations and religious oppression, after all) it's sad to see that pretty much go out the window of a certain Mustang in the closing, wish-fulfilment stages.
So, good as it is, with a catchy high concept and hip indie sensibility, it could have been so much better. Culkin, Aiken and Garner, however, can count the film as a pretty unmitigated triumph from their points of view. The boys give well-observed but also generous performances, providing great support but graciously ceding centre stage to Garner. And, not to belabour the point, she is really great as the guileless Rachel whom the camera doesn't so much love as fall at the feet of in worship. If she's not the next big thing, she's probably the next, next big thing, and we're happy to have caught this early sampler of her talents. [B]