A contempo nativity story in which the Holy Ghost seemingly impregnates a Mormon girl through a cover of Jack Lee/Blondie’s incomparable tune, “Hanging on the Telephone,” “Electrick Children” reps a sweet slice of indie quirk. Although the script for writer-helmer Rebecca Thomas’ debut feature feels as if it’s been overworked by one too many screenwriting workshops, confident helming and a charming young cast, especially lead Julia Garner, make pic as the irresistibly fizzy as a sachet of Pop Rocks. Low-wattage names attached will confine this to niche distribution, but it reps a crackling calling card for all involved.
Reflecting the helmer’s personal knowledge of Mormon rituals, the opening scene shows Rachel (Garner) being interviewed about her chastity and beliefs by her pastor father, Paul (Billy Zane), on her 15th birthday. The prairie-style outfits and the fact that Rachel has never seen a tape recorder before suggest the pic might be taking place in the recent past. In fact, her lack of familiarity with such old-fangled technology is merely evidence of the modernity-shunning values of the tiny, ultra-conservative community in which she and her family live.
Eager to hear what her own voice sounds like on tape, Rachel, who has a latent wild streak, sneaks into the forbidden basement where the recorder is kept and finds an unmarked blue cassette. She puts it on and hears a punchy cover version of “Hanging on the Telephone,” sung by a man. Rachel so entranced she doesn’t notice her slightly older brother, Will (Liam Aiken), entering the room to tell her off. Their mother, Gay Lynn (Cynthia Watros), finds them grappling over the tape on the floor, and suspects Will erroneously of attempted rape.
Later, Rachel is found to be pregnant. She insists that it was the voice on the tape that knocked her up, but Gay Lynn tearfully reports on what she saw that fateful night. Plans are made to marry Rachel off immediately to another boy, and Will is expelled from the community in shame. Refusing to comply, Rachel steals the family pickup truck and drives to Las Vegas, only to find that Will was hiding in the truck’s flatbed.
In Vegas, Rachel naively sets out to track down the singer, while Will tags along, determined to get her to prove his innocence. They fall in with a gaggle of grungy kids who live in what looks like a dorm, although they spend more time playing abrasive post-punk rock, drinking and skateboarding than going to classes. One boy (Rory Culkin, adorably goofy) takes a shine to the guileless Rachel, who dives eagerly into this new scene, while even Will starts to feel seduced by the lure of degenerate contempo life.
Last act arguably serves up too many magical coincidences, but such sleight of scriptural hand may be forgivable in a story where characters fervently believe God actively shapes their destinies. Besides, Thomas directs with such blithe grace and elegant pacing, and the thesps are so darn cute, any sins are easily forgivable. Even the adult, peripheral characters reveal interesting depths, especially Watros, and the pic’s portrait of the Mormon community is neither proselytizing nor patronizing.
Garner, however, reps the pic’s real secret weapon. Last seen in a small but vivid supporting role in “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” and also cast in the upcoming “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” the young thesp, with her blond curls and wide-set, intelligent eyes, is simply magnetic throughout here. Her Rachel is a perpetually endearing combination of Judy Holliday-style innocence and native street smarts.
Production design and location work establish a strong sense of place, especially in the Vegas section, without resorting too many neon-light cliches. Elsewhere, tech credits are pro, and the soundtrack is a consistent pleasure, especially Flowers Forever’s rousing version of the pic’s key song.