A personal and intimate drama not afraid to make bold narrative moves, Daniel Kokotajlo’s APOSTASY is a powerful look at Jehovah’s Witnesses. Ably supported by his principal cast, former Witness Kokotajlo crafts a tragic and engrossing narrative.
The film begins by following Alex (Molly Wright), a teenage Jehovah’s Witness: younger sister to Luisa (Sacha Parkinson) and daughter to devout Witness Ivanna (Siobhan Finneran). The story follows her family as they deal with both Alex’s shame over an infant blood transfusion (forbidden in their faith) for anemia and her sister’s looming pregnancy by someone outside their insular community. A comment on the community is refracted through the very personal story of the family’s attempts to deal with these various hurdles and challenges.
Kokotajlo’s script does an admirable job of easing viewers into the belief system of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Opening with discussion of Alex’s blood transfusion (a well-known Witness taboo) is a smart way to begin with a group most people have little experience of besides – to be blunt – closing their front door on them. The various intricacies of the hierarchy of ‘elders’ and preferred scripture is introduced in a way that serves the story, with the plot structure adept at furthering that context. ‘Outsider’ characters are only introduced as vehicles for exposition when they supplement our understanding of the main characters.
Kokotajlo’s script does an admirable job of easing viewers into the belief system […], with the plot structure adept at furthering that context.
Throughout the film, the Academy ratio shots lend themselves expressively to character’s inner monologue, which is often voiced out loud during an intensely tight close-up. Backing up the visual decisions, Kokotajlo’s writing is critical but unhysterical. There is understanding in the writing of the characters, but not at the expense of absolution for their actions and statements. Frequent and repeated references to “the new system” underpinning the belief system gives a cultish feel to the discussions. In reposte to Luisa’s incredulity, Ivanna claiming a prediction of a 1975 Armageddon to be “old truths” has a very topical ‘alternative facts’ angle.
Although an examination of this rather closed community is a clear objective, there are other strands woven through Kokotajlo’s film. Alex’s burgeoning relationship with a male elder is at once comically weird (he is ironically young) and creepily exploitative (he holds a position of power within this community). Pregnant Luisa’s attempts to return from being “disfellowshipped” are blocked by all-white, all-male elders dismayed at her tendency to “voice her own opinions too much”.
Kokotajlo also has the bravery to pull off a lead character switch in the same startling vein as THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES, which works to remarkable effect. The viewpoint shift works extremely well for a number of reasons, including injecting energy into the film. Its effectiveness, however, is a result of the well written characters up to this point – had we been shifting to a thin stereotype it would be the film’s detriment, not benefit.
…a film that is disarmingly quiescent in its critique and bleak in its conclusions.
APOSTASY – although at first glance quite stand-offish – is fiercely critical of Jehovah’s Witnesses, but in a very intelligent manner. There is a clear understanding of the community that evokes documentary style, and well-written characters. The end result is a film that is disarmingly quiescent in its critique and bleak in its conclusions. Armageddon may not come during APOSTASY, but Kokotajlo’s film chronicles the destruction of smaller and more personal worlds in a manner that grips from genesis to final revelations.