I was fortunate to catch THEM THAT FOLLOW (2019) at the Calgary Underground Film Festival last night. It’s an engaging film about the beauty and danger of religious faith. The people in this film live a religious life in full belief that God and the Devil intervene in one’s worldly affairs based on how strong one’s faith is, which must be tested by snake handling.
The film is about Mara, the preacher’s daughter, who lives in a small, isolated, Appalachian community of Pentecostals. Mara’s problem is she loves a young man who is a doubter and is distancing himself from the church, and she might be pregnant with his child. Her father wants her to marry another man who is gentle and properly devout, though when this man tells Mara how God calmed the demons in his heart and keeps them at bay, you get a glimmer of what he is capable of. To show their devotion to and trust in God, these particular Pentecostals are snake handlers. When they announce themselves ready for a test, they hold a rattler snake. If the snake calms, they pass, and if it bites you, you must face your next test, which is to survive the venom through faith without any medical attention.
Pentecostals are Christians who emphasize the agency of the Holy Spirit and believe God is something to be directly experienced, not ritually worshipped. The small rural community in this film are almost entirely true believers, including Mara, who is in love with a man and somewhat headstrong but must obey her father, church, and faith and marry someone else because that’s how it works, women must obey men in all things.
The resulting spiritual tension is fairly powerful because the story puts you in the shoes of somebody living in this world, where God is always watching and the Devil is always there to tempt you, and God must be loved and obeyed with energy and feeling every minute of the day. That’s the real strength of the film, which is how sensitively and immersively it handles empathy and point of view. Everything that happens is through Mara’s point of view, and Mara is devout. It doesn’t ridicule or moralize for or against Pentecostalism or even the snake handling. It doesn’t demonize her pastor father who controls her life. The tension culminates in a powerful last act where Mara is forced to make her final choice.
Overall, despite some clunky pacing and somewhat fuzzy development of the central conflict, THEM THAT FOLLOW is a solid drama that immerses you in people living in a highly restrictive and regulated belief system and worldview, and a young woman’s struggle between living the life of faith in which she was raised and the worldly love that she wants.