The fanciful “Electrick Children” plumbs the feverish imagination of Rachel (Julia Garner), a 15-year-old brought up in a fundamentalist Mormon enclave in southern Utah, who is convinced that she is the conduit for a miraculous virgin birth. Believing she was impregnated by a voice she heard on a cassette singing Blondie’s “Hanging on the Telephone,” she assumes this country-rock drone somehow reached inside her to create a being who might be the son of God.
If this sounds like the stuff of farce, the movie — written and directed by Rebecca Thomas, who comes from a Mormon background — is neither comedy nor drama nor satire but a surreal mélange infused with magical realism. Rachel’s dreamlike visions of a wild mustang in a story that her mother tells her symbolize repressed sexuality and longing for adventure in a punishingly austere environment.
The story begins when Rachel’s father, Paul (Billy Zane), the scraggly desert community’s stern leader, records an interview with her on her birthday. Standing by is her prim teenage brother, “Mr. Will” (Liam Aiken), with whom she shares shabby basement quarters. Rachel, with her long blond braid and girlish pink dress, and Will, in his suspenders and high-waisted trousers, suggest refugees from “Little House on the Prairie.” Their innocence is touching but a little alarming.
Shortly after the interview Rachel realizes she might be pregnant. But because she is chaste, how could that be? After she tests positive for pregnancy, her father decides she should immediately marry a boy she hardly knows. She flees to Las Vegas in the family pickup truck, bringing the same cassette machine on which the interview was recorded and using it to relate her adventures. Will, whom her parents wrongly assume to be the father, stows away on the truck, intending to confront her, elicit her confession and clear his name once they reach their destination.
The movie becomes a playful urban fable, about the collision of country and city mice that suggests a variation of “The Wizard of Oz.” The alienated rock ’n’ roll street kids and skateboarders whom Rachel and Will latch onto are every bit as lost as these sheltered children, who have never seen a cellphone and are agog over the sounds and lights of Sin City.
Ms. Garner, who had a small role in “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” anchors this flighty movie with a radiant performance. Strong-willed, determined and unfailingly sincere, Rachel is shielded by her innocence. She receives her first serious kiss from a rock singer, and Will, after an accident on a skateboard, gobbles forbidden painkillers and is arrested.
Rachel’s nascent romance with Clyde (Rory Culkin), a floundering misfit exiled from his rich family, injects the movie with a seam of poignancy. She eventually meets the man behind the voice on the cassette.
“Electrick Children” is well acted and refreshingly nonjudgmental, but its narrative continuity is tenuous at best. As it jounces along toward a pat, unsatisfying ending, it leaves essential questions unanswered. But the movie’s underlying sweetness leaves a residual glow.
Hooray for women filmmakers! This movie is out in NYC.