By Peg Aloi
Them That Follow feels both cautionary and elegiac, and clearly relevant in these times of extremism and the rise of small town tyrannies.
Them That Follow, directed by Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage. Screening at Coolidge Corner Theatre, AMC Liberty Tree Mall, and CinemaSalem.
This debut feature from writing-directing team Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage is set in Appalachia and examines a fringe religious movement from an insider’s perspective. If you’ve spent any amount of time driving through rural parts of any state in America, there’s a subtle phenomenon you may not have noticed. There are churches that don’t look like churches; these congregations meet in garages, basements, and barns. They have complicated names such as “The New Church of Jesus Lord of Creation” or simple names like “Brotherhood Church.” Like our ancestors, some of whom migrated to America so they would have the freedom to hang witches, these groups break from their established local religious communities in order to do things differently. What “differently” means may vary, but in Them That Follow we get a taste of religious beliefs and practices that are kept secret — because they run afoul of the law.
Mara (Alice Englert) lives with her father Lemuel (Walton Goggins), who’s the pastor of their local nameless congregation. Their meetings, in a barn or on crude wooden benches that sit by a creek in the woods, are simply referred to as “worship.” As the film begins, we see Mara doing chores and remembering loving moments with Augie (Thomas Mann of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl). They go to the woods to hunt for snakes, which Mara says she finds beautiful: “You’re beautiful,” Augie says softly to her. The community believes in arranging marriages and Lemuel has his eye on another suitor for his daughter, so Augie and Mara, despite having been intimate, are brusque and civil with each other. Augie rebels by refusing to attend worship, but his father Zeke (Jim Gaffigan in a rare dramatic role) and mother Hope (recent Oscar winner for The Favourite Olivia Colman) don’t pressure him.
These sessions of worship include speaking in tongues, laying on of hands, and snake handling. Zeke lost his thumb as a result of an encounter with a snake: they use rattlesnakes to “draw out unclean spirits,” but occasionally people are bitten. Along with snake handling goes faith healing; doctors and conventional medicine are not only frowned on, they are strictly forbidden. Hence the community’s tendency to avoid encounters with police: refusing children medical care is considered child endangerment by the authorities. We learn that some people in the community leave and don’t come back: like the mother of Mara’s best friend, Dilly (Booksmart’s Kaitlyn Dever), who leaves her daughter living in an old RV in the woods. It’s hinted that her mother had had enough of the community’s strange ways.
Mara steals a pregnancy test from the local general store and sneaks into the woods to use it. The rules around fraternization are fuzzy, but it’s pretty clear any kind of sexual activity outside of marriage is forbidden. Hope serves as a sort of doctor/midwife to the community, examining young women like Mara before they can be engaged. When Mara is betrothed to Garret, Hope’s discovery of Mara’s pregnancy leads her to assume the two soon-to-be-newlyweds didn’t want to wait. But the truth is more complicated. Garret (Bad Times at the El Royale’s Lewis Pullman), a polite boy who is devoted but possessive, senses that there’s a closeness between Mara and Augie. When Augie decides to attend worship, and is bitten, Mara’s visits to him make Garret angry. Augie begs to be taken to a hospital, but his parents and pastor, and even Mara, hold fast to their belief that God will intervene — if it is His will.
While the story is somewhat predictable at times, Them That Follow offers a fascinating glimpse into the lives of people who cling to a superstitious, and very dangerous, mode of religious practice. The simple yet lush cinematography (by Ready or Not’s Brett Jutkiewicz) underscores the earthy authenticity of the plot’s setting, as does the dreamy score by Garth Stevenson (Chappaquiddick). Goggins serves the role of the pastor well; his gentle leadership style gives way, in stressful moments, to a thundering patriarchal fury. Colman is understated and excellent, her struggle to remain true to a path that “saved” her from an earlier life of sin is increasingly at odds with her desire to keep her son alive. Englert, a young actress whose breakout performance in Ginger & Rosa has made her a star, gives a subtle and unassuming performance, as Mara slowly tries to break free from a faith that has bound her to a way of life that is delusional and perilous. Them That Follow feels both cautionary and elegiac, and clearly relevant in these times of extremism and the rise of small town tyrannies.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for The Boston Phoenix. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She writes regularly for The Orlando Weekly, Crooked Marquee, and Bloody Disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at at themediawitch.com.