Them That Follow | Britt Poulton & Dan Madison Savage | August 2, 2019
Mara (Alice Englert) is raised in a small Appalachian community led by her father, Pastor Lemuel Childs (Walton Goggins). This isolated community that is seen in Them That Follow, the debut feature from writer-director duo Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage, follows the practice of Pentecostalism, a form of Christianity that use venomous snakes in their practice in their devotion to God.
She is supposed to marry the seemingly good-natured religious Garret (Lewis Pullman), but her affection really lies with Augie (Me and Earl and The Dying Girl & Kong: Skull Island‘s Thomas Mann). She discovers that she is pregnant with Augie’s baby, unbeknownst to him, which would be looked down upon by her father as well as Augie’s equally religious parents, Hope and Zeke Slaughter (The Favourite‘s Olivia Colman & comedian Jim Gaffigan), as well as the entire community.
Being an avid church-goer is one thing, but slinging venomous snakes on the backs of your parishioners and hoping they don’t get bit and die is a completely different level entirely. And you just know every time they show a snake that it’s only a matter of time until someone is getting bit. As well-intentioned as the religious practices are, faults begin to appear in their system as an accident puts a church member’s life in jeopardy. Mara is stuck deciding to do what her heart tells says or what God supposedly wants for her.
For many, this would seem like lunacy. But Poulton and Savage never offer opinions or judge the practices of this community, instead acting as casual observers, allowing the audience to come to their own just opinion. This is their way of life and it’s not for us to decide if that’s right or wrong, despite our natural inclination to do so.
Led by Alice Englert, the film has an insular and introspective tone that she channels well enough. It’s just that you don’t totally connect with her in a way that feels urgent or as convincing or compelling on the emotional level that is needed to elevate the material to more than just a surface-level observation of this world, despite the best intentions of this well-built cast.
Along with the solid supporting turns from Pullman, Mann, and Gaffigan, there’s a warm turn from Kaitlyn Dever (Booksmart) as Mara’s honest friend Dilly, who is sadly a bit of an undercooked character. It’s the performances by the always great Walton Goggins and Olivia Colman that stand out and elevate some of the drier and more familiar aspects at play.
Them That Follow shows the power that religion can have to possibly save people, but also suffocate them to the point that they are forced to confront being “faithful” or turning a blind eye to their faith in order to truly live. It just doesn’t navigate these waters in a way that feels totally confident or deliver the same level of bite as some of the serpents in the film.