Director: Daniel Kokotajlo
Starring: Siobhan Finnernan, Sacha Parkinson, Molly Wright
Runtime: 1 Hour 35 Minutes
What It Is: Debut film-maker Dan Kokotajlo writes and directs this British drama focusing on a community of Jehovah’s Witnesses in north-west England. In Oldham, middle-aged single mother Ivanna (Siobhan Finneran)’s worst fears are realized when her eldest daughter Luisa (Sacha Parkinson) begins to query her faith and then gets pregnant after starting college. If her mother and sister cannot convince her to return to The Truth, they face the difficult obligation to disown Luisa completely.
What We Think: What happens when religious faith comes up against family love and allegiance? Nothing beautiful, in British filmmaker Dan Kokotajlo’s quietly unsettling feature debut. A former Jehovah Witness, Kokotajlo knows the world he is exploring in Apostasy, all apocalyptic visions of salvation for only a chosen few, and immovable adherence to dogma in an attempt to guarantee that one is among God’s favorites. And he depicts this with an underlit colorlessness and a silent suffocation that is as oppressive as the lives of his obliviously brainwashed characters. Eighteen-year-old Alex (Molly Wright) doesn’t seem to realize how bland and drab her life is, with apparently little to occupy her beyond learning Urdu(!) so that she can proselytize to the “underserved” Muslim community in her hometown of Manchester. But she does appear to find real joy in her relationship with her slightly older sister, Luisa (Sacha Parkinson)… at least until Luisa does something to warrant “disfellowship,” or kicking out of the Jehovah Witnesses. Now Alex and their mom, Ivanna (Siobhan Finneran), are left on their own — they must shun Luisa — to dig further into their social and familial isolation even when, surely, their hearts are telling them that benevolence and understanding are more what Luisa needs from them. Marvelously understated performances from the cast combine with Kokotajlo’s unwillingness to let dictatorial belief systems off the hook, even as he finds compassion for those caught in this one’s hooks, to make for a scathing critique of heartlessness in the name of some imaginary and blatantly invented greater cause. How positive a desire is a religion if it cuts you off from life and love on Earth?
Our Grade: B, Frequently, the film is enraging. Not because it shows the way in which religious teachings have the power to rewire the morality of its devotees, but for the somber tone in which its devotees accept and believe it regardless of family turmoil. Without giving away too much, the absence of catharsis make the film’s cold conclusion even more devastating as what you expect to happen never arrives and I have to say Siobhan Finnernan was amazing, the inner struggle etched all over her face was plain to see and no words were needed to express what she was thinking and the tough decisions she had to wrestle with.