A dark, uncertain little film with a dazzling performance by newcomer Elizabeth Olsen bearing the weight of its considerable gloom. Martha Marcie May Marlene (that unfortunate mouthful of a title refers to the various names by which the protagonist is called at different times, for different reasons) shows us a troubled young woman emerging—or trying to emerge—from a deeply damaging life within a small cult-like group. It’s all there: a charismatic and manipulative leader (the scarily dead-on John Hawkes from last year’s Winter’s Bone), a secluded rural group home, a lot of talk of “love” and “cleansing” and “sharing”, and, ultimately, a whole lot of vulnerable young women being emotionally strip-mined through sexual and psychological abuse. It’s not an original or unfamiliar story; and it’s depressing to realize how much of our familiarity with it comes not from fiction, but from real-world events chronicled on TV news, documentaries, and Court TV, most recently in the high-profile trial of Warren Jeffs. This stuff really happens. All the time.
The result, in Martha’s case, is a person whose sense of self and personal boundaries have been so eroded—or corroded—that it doesn’t occur to her anymore that it might be inappropriate to climb into bed next to a married couple having sex. “It’s a big bed,” she explains as they react with anger and shock, “And you were both on the other side.” To you and me, their anger is predictable; to Martha, it’s mystifying and hurtful. As is her sister’s indignation when she finds Martha swimming naked in the lake near the sister’s husband. Martha hasn’t owned her own body for a long time, because any attempt to maintain that ownership or privacy would have just made life more painful. So for her, naked is how you swim—especially among your family. And of course it’s not just her body that has been taken away from her, it’s her whole personhood. Among her cult ‘family’ she was not Martha but Marcy May, simply because that’s what the leader wanted to call her. Her identity, like everything else within his twisted little domain, was his prerogative. Now outside of that domain, Martha struggles to reclaim her self, but the movie gives us many reasons to question whether that’s even possible.
Olsen’s performance conveys not just the damage done to Martha, which would be comparatively easy, but also the person to whom it’s been done. That’s harder. It requires her to pivot between the confusion and fear of a shell-shocked soul, the brittle self-assertion of someone trying to get a toehold on healing, and occasional flashes of the smart, idealistic child we suspect she once was—all without simply seeming like a freakshow. She rises fully to the challenge of one of the more difficult female roles of the year, and I was saddened (though not terribly surprised) to see her overlooked by the Academy.
© 2012 dondi demarco