Stars: Siobhan Finneran, Sacha Parkinson, Molly Wright, Robert Emms
This very impressive debut from British writer-director Kokotajlo is a slow-burning but gripping drama set among a community of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Manchester. ‘Happy Valley’s’ Finneran is Ivanna, a devout single mother to two teenage daughters, Alex (Wright) and her younger eighteen-year-old sister Luisa (Parkinson). Their lifestyle is elegantly sketched out in opening sequences, one in which Alex and her mother admonish a doctor for giving what was possibly a lifesaving blood transfusion against her consent and her beliefs, and another in which she attends an Urdu lesson so the organisation can reach out to the local Muslim community. The latter is one of several fascinating insights from a filmmaker who grew up a Jehovah’s Witness. Luisa is attending art college against her mother’s wishes and when she becomes pregnant by someone outside of her community, Ivanna is advised by one of the all-male Elders, in this instance the comically young Steven (Emms), only to have the most minimal contact with her daughter. A subsequent incident involving Alex means family relations become even more fraught and harrowing as circumstances force each of the characters to re-examine their beliefs. The unspooling events could be the stuff of lurid melodrama in lesser hands, but Kokotajlo exhibits admirable reserve, as well as empathy with the characters, whatever their beliefs. The director’s restraint is mirrored in a trio of excellent performances with Finneran in particular delivering a masterfully internalized and attentive portrait of a woman beset by doubt.