Debut screenwriter and director Daniel Kokotajalo weaves together apostasy in Kingdom Hall, and strands of growing sexuality and defiance in a North of England family setting. Middle-aged, Ivanna (Siobhan Finneran) has two teenage daughters and holds on to Jehovah Church doctrine like a nursing mother. The gold standard here is Jeanette Winterton’s autobiographical 1985 novel, adapted as a 1990 BBC serial, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. The Jesuit maxim also applies in both cases, ‘Give me the child until he was seven, and I’ll show you the man,’ or women.
Devout Alex (Molly Wright), and her older sister, Luisa (Sacha Parkinson) who recants her religious beliefs in the here-ever-afters and leaves the family home and relationship are a test case into the nature of belief and God.
Kokotajlo who was brought up in a Jehovah Witness household knows religion is a serious business. In Putin’s Russia, for example, Jehovah Witnesses are (and I’m meant to say here, allegedly,) persecuted for their refusal to serve in the armed forces. Heinrich Himmler also had them rounded up and placed in concentration camp and marked out with a lime-green triangle for much the same reason. Since Jehovah Witnesses were taught to expect the apocalypse, and labelled Hitler the Antichrist, this Armageddon was expected and even overdue. But Himmler made use of their pure Aryan blood, their essential honesty and willingness to work themselves to death. He advocated bureaucratic pragmatism, and women’s labour should be utilised as servants and baby-sitters in the houses of SS guards outside the barbed wire of concentration camps.
Alex is the narrator when the film begins. She is much too pretty a match for gawky Steven (Robert Emms). In a rather awkward courtship ritual, the viewer learns he works as a window cleaner, while living alone and training to be an Elder in the Church. Alex works as a gardener, and has taken classes to learn and speak Urdu. We see her and another young Jehovah witness proselytising door to door among the Asian community of the run-down town having learned the language.
Both sisters have secrets. Alex is anaemic. She fingers a scrapbook with pictures of saved children that have died rather than have a blood transfusion. Alex had a blood transfusion when she was a baby. She is aware of her unworthiness and how she could be shunned by her mother and the community of believers and spend the afterlife in hell. Steven squeezes her hand to show he understands. He’s pecked her on the lips. Her purity settled, the engagement is still on, until she gets a bit wobbly on her feet at a house party.
Luisia is at college studying God knows what. She explains to her mother that she might have to miss a meeting at Kingdom Hall to complete a module on Thursday night. They argue. But her secret is bigger than that.
When Luisia admits to her mother and sister she is pregnant, Ivannah tries to reassure her that the Elders in the church will understand and be merciful. But Luisia questions orthodoxy. She tells her mum that she’d been on the internet and that in the 1970s some Elders had given up their jobs, taken their kids out of school and sold their property believing that the end of the world was imminent, but the Holocaust was postponed. God’s ways are opaque.
Luisia is shunned by the Elders in her church, quoting Galatians and the church fathers’ advice about having little to do with those not on the righteous path. Her mother and sister are told to cut themselves off from her. This is made easier when Luisia leaves home.
Transitions are difficult in life and family. When next we see Luisia she is back at Kingdom Hall and asking one of the faithful to give up her seat so she can sit in the front row, where her mother is already sitting dry-eyed. There’s a jump in which we realize the coffin is that of Alex, her wee sister and the narrator. All the questions that have been asked about faith and relationship are multiplied like the woes of Job.
Ivanna turns to the church for answers, and the Elders look at Luisia and doubt she truly has renegaded her apostasy, her return to the church a false flag of faith. Neither side is truly prepared to cede ground, a loving mother and soon-to-be grandmother caught in the middle. A new-born baby, each life brings hope of renewal.