“Angela” is a film of intense and unusual spirituality, something one doesn’t often encounter in contemporary and/or independent cinema. The study of the private, imaginative lives of two young girls as they try to cope with their volatile parents and the struggle between God and the Devil they feel is going on very close to them, Rebecca Miller’s first feature will prove too obscure and taxing for most audiences, making it an unlikely prospect theatrically. Discerning viewer, however, will find a few things to chew on here and might be taken in by the picture’s oddly appealing gravity.
Miller’s half-hour 1991 short, “Florence,” was a largely muddled and pretentious allegory about self-sacrifice and healing. Her concerns this time are even more mystical and explicitly religious, resulting in what feels like a very Catholic film, but they are rooted in specific evocations of childhood and the dawning of awareness that provide the reveries and symbols with a generally firm grounding in reality.
Ten-year-old Angela (Miranda Stuart Rhyne) is obsessed with the story of God and Lucifer, and explains to her 6-year-old sister, Ellie (Charlotte Blythe), that, unless they keep themselves exceedingly clean and good inside, the Devil might come up to snatch one of them away.
When not having visions of angels or trying to protect Ellie, Angela spies on her parents making love, which she can do through a floor grating, goes deer hunting with her industrious father, Andrew (John Ventimiglia), and overhears her mother, Mae (Anna Thomson), saying, “I don’t feel anything for the girls anymore. It’s like I’m dead inside.”
The family has just moved for the umpteenth time, and Mae, a voluptuous, peroxided blonde and former singer, is showing signs of becoming unhinged. Running around town in a revealing outfit and dancing with a stranger in a bar in front of her daughters, she seems like a sad, over-the-hill Marilyn Monroe character and soon has to be carted away to a hospital.
With their mother gone, the girls veer off on their own, having some odd experiences among the rural New York working-class characters, including helping their pregnant sitter when her water breaks and narrowly escaping a sexually predatory man from an amusement park. Ultimately, Angela has herself baptized in the river, which precipitates a tragic but literally uplifting ending.
On paper, plotline seems pretentious and overly symbolic, but the gritty reality of the lower middle-class settings, the volatile dynamics of the family relationships and Angela’s precocious insights generally keep the film with two feet on the ground.
There’s a significant degree to which pic feels like the filmmaker working out any number of psychological, emotional and spiritual problems in a bald way, but the dramatization of these matters is cogent enough to keep the film from bouncing around on abstract currents.
Performances, notably those by young Rhyne and the haunted-looking Thomson, are very good. Ellen Kuras’ lensing of Hudson Valley locations gives the film an evocative visual component. Because the intellectual element tends to dominate the narrative, pic borders on the sluggish at times, but its mysteries give the film a peculiar and intriguing pull.