Monday, December 2, 2013

Julia Garner lights up 'Electrick Children'

The plot of “Electrick Children” sounds like the premise of a bad comedy that comes at the expense of the Mormon community: A Mormon teenager believes her pregnancy is an immaculate conception that’s the result of hearing rock music for the first time.

Thankfully, this drama offers a unique and intriguing coming-of-age story featuring a standout performance by Julia Garner.

Garner portrays Rachel, a 15-year-old girl living in a secluded Mormon community in Utah. Rachel is convinced her pregnancy is the result of secretly listening to a cassette tape featuring an unknown man singing “Hanging on the Telephone.”

The scene where she holds the clunky tape recorder to her ear as she sways back and forth, slowly dancing to the tune in a darkened room is a testament to Garner’s acting ability. There’s just the right amount of wonder and curiosity to convince viewers that they’re witnessing someone hearing rock music for the first time. Garner’s ability to deftly strike the right tone throughout the movie is why this story works so well. It’s also a sign we’ll likely see more of 19-year-old Garner in the years to come.

Despite Rachel’s fervent belief, her family isn’t convinced this is an immaculate conception. In fact, suspicions fall on her brother, who is exiled from the colony. A marriage between Rachel and a local boy is arranged to help salvage the family’s reputation.

But before she’s forced to walk down the aisle, Rachel takes the family truck and hits the road to find the mysterious man singing on the tape. Her brother comes along for the ride, hoping for a chance to clear his name.

Rachel ends up in Las Vegas where she and her brother meet a group of young skaters and musicians. Though these teens live in the big city (and almost on its streets), it’s obvious that they are trying to figure out how to navigate the adult world  -- just the same as Rachel and her brother.

It’s also why it seems natural that after a few obligatory remarks about the siblings dressing as if they’ve come from “Little House on the Prairie,” they’re ultimately taken in by these teens, including aspiring musician Clyde (Rory Culkin). Culkin’s performance smartly complements Garner’s work here. Watching these teens relate to each other and the confusing world around them is the heart of this movie, infusing it with sincerity and authenticity.

As this story unfolds, some might criticize it for being a bit too fantastical, perhaps relying too much on coincidence. It’s an understandable criticism, but the movie doesn’t appear to suffer from the way writer/director Rebecca Thomas has chosen to propel her story forward. If anything, it reinforces the message that a person’s pure and unwavering devotion to their beliefs will be rewarded.

Thomas, who was raised Mormon, has a lot to be proud of with “Electrick Children,” her first feature. There’s no shortage of indie films that tell a coming-of-age story. Too often these stories are cliched and tired. Thomas, however, has created a coming-of-age story that is unique, at times fantastic, but ultimately satisfying.