Films about unusual religious sects, and acts of faith that most viewers would find extreme or off-putting, walk a tight line. It’s tough to compassionately portray, for example, a snake-handling church—where preachers and congregants hold live, poisonous rattlers during service to demonstrate their connection to God—without seeming like the camera is staring in horror. At least, that was my takeaway from Them That Follow, the debut feature from Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage, which delves into the serpent-focused doings of a secluded Appalachian religious community. While the film tries to be a shocking window into another world, it plays more like an agog piece of tourism.
The central conceit of the fictional church run by Lemuel Childs (played by Walton Goggins) is loaded with tension. Anyone taking a venomous snake out of a box and dangling it around their person, no matter how calm they are about it, is stressful to watch. But the directors never manage to make the odd behavior in Them That Follow seem like more than a cinematic device. No doubt such churches do exist in pockets of the U.S., yet the residents of this onscreen version don’t remotely feel like real people.
Them That Follow centers on Lemuel’s daughter Mara (the extremely promising young actor Alice Englert), who has been raised in the church and thus lives an isolated existence deep in the woods. Snake handling is, unsurprisingly, quite illegal, so Lemuel and his tiny flock operate in secrecy; among the followers are the recent Oscar winner Olivia Colman as a hard-bitten convenience-store owner, a particularly tufty-bearded Jim Gaffigan, and the outstanding Kaitlyn Dever (a star in Booksmart who’s mostly wasted here as Mara’s mousy friend). The exciting cast is given little to do, since the real stars of the show are the snakes.