In her first appearance since winning the Oscar for her starring role in The Favourite, where her memorable performance as Queen Anne was only elevated by co-stars Emma Stone and Rachel Weiss, Olivia Colman again finds herself as part of a strong ensemble, if in a very different kind of film. Written and directed by Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage, Them That Follow is a first feature that exists entirely within a reclusive religious community in the Appalachia region, one driven by and utterly (to a fault) reliant on their beliefs. Led by charismatic preacher Lemuel (Walton Goggins), church services are intense and energetic, often including speaking in tongues and worshipping with poisonous snakes. Yep, it’s that kind of religion.
Colman is Hope, an obedient and fairly dour woman we meet when two teenagers, Mara (Alice Englert) and Dilly (Kaitlyn Dever), stop by the local general store for a few things, including a pregnancy test Mara slips unseen under her coat. Hope reprimands the girls for their errand, saying it will make them late for the day’s worship, and she insists they wait with her for son Augie (Thomas Mann) to pick them all up and get them back to their enclave in time for services. It’s soon clear that the youth of this community are who we’ll get to know best, as Mara and Augie share a moment and Mara sneaks away to pee on that stick and confirm the news she already suspects.
Though raised in the church, Augie has recently left its confining ways to work and live outside of the community’s reach, a fact Hope agonizes over. Mara, however, is still very much tied to the church and her own beliefs; despite her feelings for Augie and her newfound circumstances, she remains faithful to the community that’s raised her. Soon, she’s being paired off and betrothed to someone else entirely, participating in a strange but ultimately harmless ceremony of intentions (she hands her new fiance a quilt as a sign of her acceptance of his proposal) witnessed by the whole community.
The news of the out-of-wedlock pregnancy doesn’t stay secret for long, as Hope performs an even more strange (and wholly intrusive) ceremony that’s essentially a physical examination to confirm Mara’s pre-wedding virginity. In an effort to make it all right (because, again, in this community all these perfectly normal behaviors—falling in love, premarital sex—are strictly forbidden), Augie attempts to return to the community, for the sake of his family and the woman he loves. During a church service, he even accepts the pastor’s invitation to handle one of the poisonous snakes in order to prove the strength of his faith; if he truly believes, he won’t be bitten.
Poulton and Savage do a respectable job of introducing this community and its key players; in a relatively short amount of time, we understand the various relationships and connections between the ensemble, even if some of these ties never get a chance to be fully explored. Jim Gaffigan, for example, stars as Augie’s father, a role that in this version seems to be a very small one for such a recognizable face. Perhaps his meatier scenes are on some editing room floor somewhere. Colman, Englert and even Dever, who starred in the criminally underrated Booksmart earlier this year and only plays a supporting role here, all deliver invested performances, their different experiences of this oppressive community quite distinct in each actress’s choices. Goggins, best known for his role in “Justified,” is nearly unnerving as the slick and exacting preacher, keeping his flock obedient and just a little bit terrified.
Ultimately, Mara comes to a crossroads about her faith and the life she wants for her unborn child, and the filmmakers approach their third act with a sense of dread and possibility in equal measure. Them That Follow may understandably draw comparison’s to Winter’s Bone, a movie also set in a rural mountain community and driven by a young woman at a crossroads (in that 2010 film, a star-making turn from a then-unknown Jennifer Lawrence), but it will come up lacking for it. The film certainly captures one’s attention, thanks in large part to the strong cast, but it likely won’t leave a lasting impact after the credits roll.
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