Connor Gaston’s sombre psychological drama The Devout takes place in a small Canadian religious community and looks at “paranormal” occurrences that raise questions about reincarnation, faith and dying. A youngster named Abigail (played by Olivia Martin) who is dying of brain cancer tells her father Darryl (Charlie Carrick) that she was on the Apollo 8 Space Mission to the moon. Abigail says her name was Commander Jones and offers, in a matter-of-fact way, details about the fire caused the rocket to crash. On another occasion, Abigail tells Darryl that she was “someone else in the war” and provides intimate details. Darryl’s devout wife Jan (Ali Liebert) rejects it all, saying prayer is the way to erase these “lies” and save Abigail’s life. It’s a heartbreaking and provocative story of a family under unimaginable stress. Its radical, intriguing notions are treated with dignity; no sides are taken. We spoke with Carrick about this most unusual film.
Charlie, there are films on YouTube of children talking about things that happened to them in the past before they were born suggesting reincarnation. Darryl hangs on to this idea in hopes that he and his dying daughter will be reunited in another life. Did you know anything about these claims?
Connor sent me past life regression videos about children talking about past life experiences. For me and Darryl it came as a total shock. He started investigating but I didn’t because I didn’t want to act in something I had a lot of opinions of. Kids of Olivia’s age have huge imagination and it’s different from ours, and maybe not about real things. Wonder how much adults are against the idea and curb their children from talking about those things. It threatens their beliefs and certainties. The film starts with this footage that was made to look like it was the seventies, of a doctor investigating children who claim to have had past lives. When little Olivia first came in for Connor and the producers to audition for a small role of one of the children telling past life story she knocked her socks off. The part was written for a boy.
Did she realise what she was saying?
Her mum was there. I think she knew what she was saying, kids are tuned in to emotions and the emotions of what they’re saying is and her mum guided her, saying “remember this thing? What you told me?” I think for me as an actor I try to work out what my character is thinking, but I think kids can cut out that middle ground and go straight to the emotions.
It’s quite a radical concept. It was also interesting that it adhered to the principles of film noir.
Noir involves a man going on a quest, a detective mission. Darryl gives himself this mission and that whole part of the mission, my character trying to investigate past lives and futures lives, made for himself to distract from what was going on. It’s hard to know what to think about the medium he hired. He’s trying to help Darryl find out who and if and where Abigail was. He has faith in what a lot of the other characters are just as certain about, that he will see his daughter in heaven, certain she will be there. That’s more acceptable than her dying.
The film is based on events that occurred that challenge our ideas and beliefs. What did you think when you read the script?
I’m not sure it challenged my beliefs. Connor really liked the much nuanced nature of the film. Religious people in films are too easy, either really pro religion or those people who are going to be exposed as misguided at some point. This was a very nuanced representation of the community and different kinds of faith.
Darryl’s over stimulated state of mind got worse with his withdrawal from family.
I share with Darryl when things are not going well, my instinct is to be on my own, to withdraw from friends and family and sort it out myself and come back later. The film’s about that and also about people putting their faith in huge things like God, reincarnation and Hail Marys in terms of faith and it makes you think about what happens if you put faith in something else.
There aren’t many films about religious faith, why?
I’m not sure I think it can be hard to anchor it to something. What Connor did in this film about grief becomes this very pointed. When part of a small community, a small religious community experiences grief, it becomes a public thing that everyone feels part of. It’s an investigation of the pluses and minuses of being part of that religious community. What you gain in support, health and strength you lose the right to go through your grief in privacy instead in tangible things family and friends. Maybe it’s easier.
How did you connect with Darryl?
It’s interesting because this movie came along in this point in my life. When you’re acting in your 20’s a lot of the roles are this confident handsome guy where it’s all witty banter and romance and blah blah and that wasn’t how I was feeling at this point in my life. I was in the space Darryl was in. When I picked something up in the movie where someone was sad and correctly so, it was a terrible situation. The movie was about him privately dealing with that. It wasn’t overwritten or heavy handed and I was relieved to see that. We shot the film in January in BC and it was always rainy and misty. That felt in keeping with the film. We shot outside Victoria in a little town east called Sooke. The area was at the end of this long, windy road and there were misty and water and it felt great.
It has an unusual feel in this completely pre-digital world.
It’s set in the mid-nineties and strange to do this period piece but still feels close to our time without any cell phones. There is no way to make a cell phone look good in a film!
by Anne Brodie, BFCA BTJA AWFJ TFCA FIPRESCI