If you're going to join a low-key, off-the-grid, organic-farming, friendly-seeming, free-love hippie cult run by a charismatic creepy dude (John Hawkes), it might as well be one in beautiful upstate New York populated by people who are more or less your equals in above-average physical attractiveness.
Of course, keep in mind that your fellow commune-ites will be tightly bonded but "off" in that beyond-damaged way you never think pretty people will be until they're already halfway finished poisoning you or your dog or both. And they'll spend a lot of time strumming acoustic guitars when not participating in some pretty unsavory non-crop-related activities, stuff like sending out the most handsome guy in the group to pimp fresh new ladies for the Boss and conducting frightening nocturnal rituals. So when you wake up to the cold fact that it's much less Spinal Tap's "Sex Farm" and much more Manson Family Circus, you might find yourself reconsidering your decision, regardless of how cute everyone around you happens to be.
That's what young Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) does in this nerve-jangling drama, and it's also what we see her running away from, horror-movie-P.O.V.-style, in the movie's opening moments.
You learn later, detail by detail and each of them more freaky than the last, why she runs. But you're not exactly sure that the safe space she's running to -- the huge Connecticut lake house owned her well-off sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and short-fused brother-in-law Ted (Hugh Dancy) -- is going to help her much. It's not quite enough that Martha suffers from a fractured cult identity, a silently unraveling case of post-traumatic stress disorder and a set of obliterated social boundaries, she also has to deal with a sibling and a brother-in-law who can't seem to figure out where they misplaced their empathy or their ability to ask gently pointed questions. It's a one-two punch of understated, often blank-faced, indie film distance and a maddening we're-not-talking-about-what's-really-going-on dissonance. You'd think, for example, that when Martha decides to climb into bed with Lucy and Ted while they're having sex, they'd freak out and try to dig a little deeper into why she might consider curling up next to two people who are going at it something a person in her right mind would do. But no, they just freak out.
Olsen's the one on the highest tightrope here. She plays Martha (those other names figure in there, too) balanced between self-possession and self-erasure, strong enough to feel the kind of fear necessary to break free from the cult but too internally injured to find a way to fix the damage done to her, not to mention the damage she's helped create herself. Quietly, she's dumped from a bad alternative family back into the arms-distance hold of the not-so-amazing family she ran from in the first place, and the endless cycle keeps on cycling. It's a star-is-born performance, one that'll eventually drown out the noise of her current tenuous claim to "fame" as the younger sister of a pair of mega-celebrity former child star twins turned high end fashion designers.
Best of all? The film arrives in theaters with the good luck of a national moment when everybody's talking about cults again, allowing it the opportunity to become a lightning rod for conversation and debate about the nature of group-think. Hate the fact that Muslims live near you? Or that a Mormon wants to be the President? Just call them members of a cult. With enough people backing you up, you win. They're weird, dangerous and a threat, the equivalent of a dirty hippie sex co-op. But you? You're totally rational and good. Everything you know is true.