Few films capture the oppressive nature of hyper-conservative faith communities—for both women and men—as effectively as Them That Follow, which is currently screening as part of the Festival Favorites section at SXSW. It premiered earlier this year at Sundance and was subsequently acquired by The Orchard for distribution. A new classic in the films about faith genre, hopefully a wide audience will be able to see it sooner than later.
Co-written and co-directed by Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage, Them That Follow centers on a snake-handling Pentecostal community deep in the Appalachian mountains. The head of the community, Lemuel (Walton Goggins), rules with something akin to tough love. He inspires faith in the older generation and fear in their younger counterparts, particularly Lemuel’s daughter Mara (Alice Englert), faithful Garrett (Lewis Pullman), and Augie (Thomas Mann), a former member trying to break away. As the film opens, we quickly see that Mara and Augie’s romantic past threatens to undo her budding relationship with Garrett and their place in the community. The responses to this crisis from the older generation, particularly from Lemuel and Augie’s parents Hope and Zeke, played by the terrific Olivia Colman and the surprisingly powerful Jim Gaffigan, reveal the ways in which faith empowers us (or doesn’t) to take on forces and events beyond our control.
Reading a synopsis of the film, you might get the impression that you know what you’re getting into with Them That Follow, but I bet you’d be wrong. To the filmmakers’ (and the film’s) credit, Poulton and Savage downplay the serpentine component of this faith community. Snakes are in short supply here, and the filmmakers only use them to establish setting and to develop character. There are only three big moments that feature snake-handling, and they all serve important dramatic functions. This is a result of Poulton and Savage’s intention, before they even put pen to paper on the script, to treat this community with dignity and respect. They talk openly about fighting back against poverty porn or falling victim to stereotypes and caricatures.
This intentionality has allowed Poulton and Savage to create a film that captures the full danger of conservative, fundamentalist approaches to faith. Mara is a clear victim here, and Them That Follow is primarily her story. Other members of the community give little consideration to her hopes or desires and her fears are met with dismissal or a staunch affirmation of their way of life. She can see the path set before her, embodied by the female members of the older generation that submit to and serve their male counterparts. Her father is quick to quote scripture, and the film includes one of the more unsettling uses of sacred texts to demean and keep a woman in her place that I can recall in recent cinema.
But Mara isn’t the only member who suffers. Augie exists at some remove from members of the church and his own family because there is no room for doubt or disbelief here. He is not a typically rebellious young man who turning to drugs or alcohol or sex to act out or medicate. He simply questions the nature of their belief and feels called to a different life that, faithful or not, simply looks different from the one he has known tot his point. Like Augie, Garrett also struggles in the faith. When we first meet him, he seems, by all accounts, to be a good and gentle young man. However, as the film progresses and the weight of his future role in the community begins to bear down on him, he cracks under the pressure. Garrett’s actions, natural extensions of the patriarchal nature of the faith, lead Lemuel to react in ways that reveal the hypocrisy of these beliefs and how they ultimately wound everyone that clings so desperately to them.
Them That Follow has one more screening at SXSW this week on Wednesday, March 13th, at 11:00 a.m. Until its wider release, if you’re interested in learning more about the film, check out the filmmakers’ panel from Sundance earlier this year: