There are all sorts of flavors of Christianity. Two of the ones I encountered in the same day at Sundance were pentecostal – the snake-handling, tongue-speakers of remote West Virginia in Them That Follow and the soon-to-be Foursquare denomination starting evangelist Sister Aimee Semple McPherson in a film bearing an abbreviate version of her name, Sister Aimee. Both are fictional films. Though based on a real person, Sister Aimee only claims to be about 5 1/2 percent true.
Them That Follow is the better of the two films, thanks in large part to stellar acting from luminaries such as Olivia Coleman, Walter Goggins, and Jim Gaffigan, but also thanks to relative new-comers Alice Englert as “Mara” (Beautiful Creatures) in the lead role alongside Thomas Mann (Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl, for you Sundance afficionados) and Lewis Pullman as her competing suitors. The movie has a great sense of place as well. Appalachia in the fall - what more could you ask for beautiful scenery? And the autumn colors make for stark contrast to the harsh realities of this community’s faith and an appealing backdrop to the core of this story, which is really a rather straight-forward coming-of-age “against” the culture she was raised in for Mara. The story goes where you expect it to go, with snakes.
Sister Aimee contains at least two good films, but neither of them are the film we get. I’m fine with a fictionalized account of a period in the famed evangelista’s life. I even quite like the idea of sticking the Semple McPherson personality in narratives typical of her time - screwball comedies and pulp Westerns. But the film just doesn’t give her character much to do and, therefore, room to grow. Aimee is drug along by the events of the film, and that just doesn’t feel correct for someone who supposedly has a larger than life personality and natural magnetism, as stated in the movie and also in real life. Maybe not enough time is given to the set-up before the plot starts turning. But then again, scant time is given to a supporting character, Rey (a terse, indelible Andrea Suarez Paz), and she’s engaging from the moment she pops up on screen. I think it comes back to action. Rey is doing things. Aimee isn’t. Oh well. The movie does have a few hilarious moments and a knock-out musical number near the end that makes you wish the whole film was staged the same way.
In both films, the pentecostal strains of Protestantism are used as metaphors for other things. Sister Aimee is pitched as an “artist finds her voice” story, so the trappings of Aimee’s revivals are the stuff of stage productions. The film could just as easily be titled A Con Is Born. Them That Follow uses the snake-handling faith as a specific type of stifling, conservative culture for Mara to rebel against. It is true that differentiation is a necessary part of any maturation process, so the story works. I do wonder how Mara will feel about things ten years down the road from where the film ends. Good for her for now, I guess.
There is likely a complex, nuanced tale to be told about both these communities of faith, but it might be better done in documentary form. It’s too easy to use niche forms of faith as “otherness” to give relatively rote stories new appeal. Again, I quite liked Them That Follow. I’d recommend it for what it is but not for what I wish it could be.