The first & last sounds you hear in the dreamlike Electrick Children are ocean waves & a cassette player. If you played the film on loop, these sounds would parallel the experience of listening to the clicks & hisses of an audio tape switching from Side A to Side B and back again. This reverence for sound is a vital part of the film’s allure and essential to its plot. When the protagonist, a 15 year old girl simply named Rachel, listens to her very first rock & roll song she becomes inexplicably pregnant. As she navigates the consequences of this “miracle” in two irreconcilable worlds, her life takes the same Side A & Side B anatomy of the cassette tape that changed it forever.
Rachel’s home life is an isolated, fundamentalist Mormon community in Utah. It’s a loving environment, but one that strangles her personal desires & freedoms. Rachel has a sense of humor that’s generally discouraged in her piously pensive household. Her father (played by a terrifying thing that calls itself Billy Zane) is the community’s patriarch & spiritual leader, exuding a level of control that’s never purely healthy. He’s suspicious of Rachel’s prayers thanking God for modern inventions like tape recorders. Rachel’s mother is suspicious of her daughter’s intense interest in a bedtime story about a red Mustang. The story is meant for the kids to interpret as the tale of a mythical horse, but is in fact the story of the mother’s seduction in the passenger seat of a sports car. Her parents were right to be worried, as this fascination with the outside world literally impregnates their daughter through the conduit of a cassette tape recording of a new wave band covering Blondie’s “Hanging on the Telephone”. The only modern world objects in their house are hidden in the basement like a dirty secret: an electric light with a picture of the ocean, the audio cassette player & tapes. It’s in that basement where Rachel becomes pregnant. She confesses her transgression to her parents, reasoning “Maybe I listened to something I wasn’t supposed to and then I’m pregnant.” They don’t believe her and plan to conceal her “sin” by marrying her to a near stranger.
To avoid the unwanted marriage, Rachel runs away to Las Vegas in search of the voice on the cassette tape, a voice she believes belongs to her baby’s father. She approaches guitar-playing street performers and boys wearing images of cassettes in her desperate search. Vegas is a blown up version of the electric music & lights in her parents’ basement. Typical pillars of teenage rebellion swirl around her: cursing, drugs, kissing, punk shows & skate parks. Her mother’s mythical red Mustang appears to her throughout the journey: first on the drive into Vegas, then during her first kiss, and a final time after her first legitimate crime. Each time the car passes through her life it’s blasting “Hanging on the Telephone.” The car & the musicians she befriends don’t lead her to the father of her miraculous child, but along the way she falls in love, discovers autonomy, and hits every other typical beat you’d expect in a cinematic coming-of-age story. Rachel’s parents warned her of the sinful, destructive nature of the modern world, but it proves not to be true. She treats the modern world with a humble, humorous kindness and it returns the favor. Her only conflicts, including the pregnancy, result from her own transgressions.
Some reviews for Electrick Children unfairly take points off for it being too cute or fanciful. There’s a preciousness to the story that could be a turn-off for some viewers, but is entirely appropriate for what the movie is: a modern fairy tale, an exercise in magic realism. The film’s Big Hollywood Ending brings its two worlds together in a moment that feels unreal, but no more unreal than the central Immaculate Conception. The characters come across somewhat as indie movie archetypes, but that artificiality is exploited to its full advantage. They’re only assigned first names and limited motivations, but that plays into their allegorical usefulness. The actors playing Rachel and her love interest Clyde (Julia Garner & Rory Culkin) get great mileage with the shorthand, bringing depthless empathy to characters that are mostly limited to one mode: wide-eyed hope and Bill & Ted style sloth, respectively. The skill with which first time director Rebecca Thomas handles her limited budget is remarkable. She pulls a fantastic dream world out of a few locations and a small-scale cast, finding an impressive wealth of significance in a few minor details like an electric light, a cassette tape, a Mustang, and Clyde’s Hawaiian shirt. She even seemingly taunts potential detractors with lines like “You guys playing Garden State or are you coming?” Most importantly, Thomas establishes fantasy in her attention to sound: the clicks of a cassette player, “Hanging on the Telephone”, Rachel’s recorded prayers & their accompanying somber piano notes, the sounds of ocean waves. When the waves return at the film’s end and Rachel says “Let’s go back to the beginning”, it’s tempting to take the suggestion and let the tape play over again, automatically switching back to Side A.
Secret Bonus Track
Rebecca Thomas cites Pasolini’s film The Gospel According To St Matthew (1964) as a stylistic influence on Electrick Children. She said “He takes a fairly neutral and nonjudgmental approach to the New Testament […] It was also important for me to keep my version of the Virgin Mary story as grounded as I could, even though I was dealing with the supernatural: I like to ground things that are fantastical to understand them more.” As the debauchery-benchmark Salò was the only Pasolini film I had seen before, I found that influence pretty surprising. As Thomas says, the film itself is a fairly literal, unsentimental telling of (an unusually angry) Jesus’ life, but one with some striking imagery and occasional brutality, even if it does feel like eating your vegetables. It’s not required viewing to enjoy or understand Electrick Children, but it does help provide context for Thomas’ ambitions. Also, it features an Odetta song, which is always nice.
Electrick Children is currently streaming on Netflix.