While franchise movies are taking audiences into outer space and alternate universes, other films are continuing to explore worlds that are earth-bound but still foreign to most of us. In Them That Follow, in theaters Aug. 2, writer/directors Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage expose audiences to a Christian Pentecostal community in the woods of Appalachia, where worshippers practice snake handling to prove their faith in God. The film is set in the present, because churches like this do still exist. And though Them That Follow isn't based on one true story, star Alice Englert was intent on delivering a sensitive performance that wouldn't sensationalize these believers.
"Look, it’s just such a minority that are practicing this that I felt like it would be such a shame if we got to Sundance and then managed to offend or hurt people who are in an isolated situation," Englert says when we speak at the Utah film festival where the film debuted back in January. The Australian actor plays preacher's daughter Mara Childs, who has a crisis of faith and identity. "I was thinking, 'What if Mara saw it?' I’d want her to feel it was accessible to her. I’d want it to be able to communicate to her instead of shut her out."
Englert was so devoted to researching the practice and the people who live by it that her costars gently joked with her about it during the post-screening Q&A that I attended. But she absolutely has a point: when you're making a film about people who are unable to speak for themselves to the world at large, it's even more important than usual to be respectful and accurate. But there was personal curiosity in Englert's quest for knowledge too. "Because, what the hell?" she says, over the sound of furniture being moved into place for the movie's premiere party. "It’s so interesting."
(She recommends a nonfiction book called Salvation on Sand Mountain by Dennis Covington to anyone who wants to learn more. It was reading that, she says, that convinced her to take the part.)
In 2014, the death of a snake handling Pentecostal pastor made national news. Jamie Coots of Kentucky was bitten by a rattlesnake during a worship service, according to ABC News. He went home before medical help could arrive and was unconscious by the time the ambulance reached his home. His wife declined medial treatment on his behalf. As the film shows, those who practice believe that prayer can save the faithful and that God will keep them safe. Per the same ABC News piece, experts estimate that there are approximately 125 churches in the United States that still employ snake handling. Authorities in those states have attempted to curb the practice by enforcing laws about owning poisonous reptiles. But the belief and communities persist, and Englert has an idea why.
"There's something that I do find compelling about snake handling. It's this kind of surrender to the fact that life is fleeting and it’s dangerous and so inviting that [risk] gives an intense high," she continues. "And people do that in all kinds of ways all over the world — sometimes it’s extreme physical duress, sometimes it’s drugs, sometimes it’s something else. But it does fascinate me. When are you giving up, and when are you surrendering, and what the hell does that even mean?"
On the verge of being married to a young man (Lewis Pullman) of whom her father (Walton Goggins) approves, Mara is forced by circumstances to decide what she's willing to sacrifice for the path she's been brought up to follow. It's a coming-of-age journey of sorts, but unlike most other protagonists of such stories, Mara has an extremely limited number of outside influences to look to. It's empowering to watch a young adult with her whole life ahead of her feel out what's right through her intuition alone.
"In the story, Mara surrenders to her authentic self, and that’s something other than what she’s been told surrender looks like," Englert says. "And I feel that. How do you surrender to yourself?"
While others in her community are full of religious fervor, Mara moves through them warily. She doesn't speak her doubts until late in the film, but still, it's hard to believe that her family and friends wouldn't have already suspected that she had them.
"When I was watching her," Englert says of seeing her character in the final cut of the film, "I was like, 'God damn, kind of creepy.' There’s something dead in her for a while, and I think that’s what lying to yourself feels like, in a way. It starts to kill you, you know? It disturbed me seeing that today."
There are influential women in her community, specifically Olivia Colman's character, Sister Slaughter. But Mara is also caught between men who have a strong idea of who she should be. Both her suitors and her father like to remind her what they've done "for her," even though we never hear Mara ask for their supposed sacrifices. It's also unlikely that Mara has ever been exposed to the concept of feminism, yet she instinctively pushes against an inherent, "godly" sexism that is, as Englert says, "sort of subtle, but yet pervasive, and ultimately, really, really corrupting."
By focusing on Mara's story, Them That Follow isn't an indictment of Pentecostal churches, and it avoids painting the other characters as stupid or naïve. Instead, it's about one person wrestling with her inner self, highlighting a humanity within these communities that many of us may have previously overlooked.