Now I admit I don’t really watch a lot of documentaries, but in recent years I have gotten myself into a good groove when I discovered the work of documentary filmmaker, Louis Theroux. The first documentary I saw of his was The Most Hated Family in America, which was about people in the Westboro Baptist Church.
Amiably low-key, polite to the point of hilarity and compellingly insightful, Theroux got me interested in his other works, which delved into compelling topics such as drugs, sports, religion, and even porn.
And all of them were highly entertaining, thought-provoking and amusing pieces of work. So when I heard that Theroux’s next subject was Scientology, a controversial self-appointed religion made famous by celebrities like John Travolta and Tom Cruise, you better believe I was excited. So does the documentary live up to its pedigree?
After the Church of Scientology refused to cooperate in making the titular documentary, Theroux teams up with former senior church official Mark Rathbun (who has featured in another Scientology documentary, Going Clear) to create dramatic reconstructions of incidents within the church witnessed by Rathbun and other former Scientologists. In particular, they focus on alleged violent behaviour by the church’s leader David Miscavige at its secretive Gold Base facility in California, which Theroux tries to visit.
The church retaliates by putting Theroux and his film crew under surveillance, leading to camera-wielding confrontations with a Scientology “squirrel buster” team and with church officials outside Gold Base. Theroux raises questions about Rathbun’s own former complicity in the church’s extreme activities, leading to tensions between the two men.
In interviews, Theroux had said he was fascinated by the approach of another documentary: Joshua Oppenheimer‘s The Act of Killing. My Scientology Movie recreates situations based on true accounts, an approach that works well with their narrative. While some scenes are absolutely hilarious like the induction of Scientology; some scenes can be downright shocking. For instance, a specific situation where Miscavige loses his temper and takes it out on the recruits is one to be visually confronting.
The laughs and the tension still continue throughout the film with the constant surveillance from Scientology following the crew. Confrontations skewer towards a comedic route, especially when the squirrel buster team denies they are from Scientology. However, watching these scenes play out also tilt towards the more disturbingly surreal.
There is one scene in particular where Theroux and others are outside the Gold Base at night, and they are confronted by security, led by Catherine Fraser. A scene was very reminiscent of David Lynch‘s work that it scared me quite a bit. Similar to Lynch’s style, another fearfully disturbing scene featured a surprise appearance from actress Paz de la Huerta (Boardwalk Empire, Nurse 3D) early in the film to suddenly appear, only to be never referenced again.
The laughs and surrealism that is sprinkled throughout the film guarantees top-notch entertainment. But when you compare My Scientology Movie to other documentaries like Going Clear, it comes up a bit short. Despite the effort it puts into providing precious information about Scientology, there is very little information that comes as new, or even revolutionary that we haven’t heard previously from other sources.
But for those who are interested yet know very little about the subject at hand, My Scientology Movie provides a laugh-filled surrealistic experience that suitably issues a complementary alternative to the more methodical documentary Alex Gibney‘s Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief.
On a final note, there is a scene during the staged induction of Scientology where it hilariously reminded me of a sequence in The Simpsons where Homer was in the Circle of Judgment, being verbally humiliated and objectified to the point of vulnerability. You really can’t make this stuff up.
Review Score: THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
My Scientology Movie opens nationally on Thursday, September 9.