Them That Follow
Directed by: Britt Poulton, Dan Madison Savage
Starring: Walton Goggins, Olivia Colman, Kaitlyn Dever, Alice Englert
Rated R for disturbing violence
1 hr., 38 mins.

This film feels personal to me. Why else would you pick a topic about Pentecostal snake handlers, a secluded Appalachian community, and illicit romance? It’s a chance you take because you want to veer far off the beaten path.

Mara Childs (Alice Englert) is on the verge of making an important choice. Her beau, Garret (Lewis Pullman), is ready to ask her father, Pentecostal preacher and devoted snake handler Lemuel Childs (Walton Goggins), for Mara’s hand in marriage. The community supports the idea. Garret appears to be a good match: faithful to the church, employed and deeply in love.

Mara works with women in the church to design a quilt as an engagement gift. But as the film reveals early on, she has a secret. She loves Augie (Thomas Mann), the son of Zeke (Jim Gaffigan) and Hope (Olivia Colman) Slaughter, an influential family in the church.

To further complicate matters, Mara and her best friend, Dilly Picket (Kaitlyn Dever), visit Hope’s local grocery store. Mara steals a pregnancy test off the shelves. Unknown to Augie and the rest of the community, she is carrying his baby.

Mara knows what her secret will cost if the church and her father find out. She goes to great lengths to hide the truth, but her deception is temporary. When Hope insists that Mara submit to a virginity test before her wedding, the shock waves take a painful, gruesome twist, and the one who bears the brunt is Augie.

In their directorial debuts, Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage passionately pursue the boundaries of religion and the freedom to break free and choose a different moral path. This is not a unique subject, but when you include poisonous snakes as part of your faith, the stakes are raised — even more so for a woman under scrutiny.

To make their point, Poulton and Savage must make some important decisions.

First, if you expect to get insight into Pentecostals or snake handlers, Them That Follow will disappoint. Yes, this community relies on Mark 16: 17-18, a controversial passage from the New Testament in which Jesus promises his followers that if they faithfully evangelize, they will speak in new languages, drive out demons, pick up snakes, drink poison without being harmed and heal the sick. But regarding Mara’s community, you won’t get much background.

Second, while the congregants do handle snakes, the reptiles are more in support of the faith embedded within this community. That faith could be Catholic, Mormon, Jewish or Islamic. The problem is the same: Mara and Augie have broken an important conviction about sex and marriage. While you may shrink at the thought of snake handling, you will find that this is in fact a romance. Think Nora Steele or Nicholas Sparks.

Given these choices, the directors attempt to walk a fine line. They are neutral in judgment. The dialogue, though rich in Southern character, is not complicated. The emotional consequences simmering throughout the film, however, end in violence.

The payoff is in the acting. Goggins was born to play Lemuel, a grim but compelling preacher. Colman, fresh off her Academy Award last spring, is startling as a black sheep turned holy. Englert, mostly unknown outside of Australia, holds her own as Mara, a woman of faith compelled by her love for Augie.

It’s rare to catch a film this time of year that is willing to risk its reputation on such obscure yet rich subject matter: faith, love, family, sex and growing up. It’s an old story shown here in an unfamiliar setting. I challenge you to take a chance and see if this story sounds familiar. In a church. In L.A. and New York. In Appalachia. Wherever people live, it seems there’s no escape when love comes to call.