By Jessica Kiang | The Playlist February 20, 2012 at 2:01PM
Opening the Generation section of the 2012 Berlinale, which is designed to promote films for, by and/or about young people, we honestly weren't sure what to expect from "Electrick Children," the debut film from writer/director Rebecca Thomas. Colour us pleasantly surprised then to discover that the film is a genuinely enjoyable coming of age tale that compensates, and then some, for its narrative shortcomings with the winningness of the three central performances, from Rory Culkin, Liam Aiken and a luminous Julia Garner. It's really Garner's movie, and young though she is, she imbues a role that could easily have come across as prissy or doltish with a perfect combination of sweetness, naivete and stubbornness that sells even the less convincing nooks and crannies of the story.
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.
So yes, this is a bright, intelligent girl who is yet so naive she believes a song got her pregnant (and there is very little suggestion that she is ever dissembling, that she doesn't absolutely believe this). Somehow Garner's performance manages to straddle this contradiction effortlessly, and the quality of her simple faith, when contrasted with the suspicions of her parents who have presumably been telling her miraculous stories from the bible since the day she was born, is such that we kind of accept it and move on. So what would become the central, burning question in another film (whodunnit?) takes a backseat here to a voyage of self-discovery and personal transformation. Featuring enjoyable fish-out-of-water scenarios that steer just clear of twee, as the siblings end up in Las Vegas dossing in a communal flophouse for a bunch of streetsmart musicians and hangers on, notably Clyde (Rory Culkin), the film then takes another sharp turn away from the expected, as Clyde finds himself drawn to the luminous Rachel despite himself, and Mr Will gets his first taste of skateboards and drugs and sex; the experiments of adolescence that his upbringing has denied him. But if Mr Will ultimately rejects the shiny baubles of modern life, Rachel somehow manages to synthesise her religious upbringing with the outside world, and in so doing is revealed not so much to be changed herself as to be the agent of change for everyone around her.
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]