Directed By: Daniel Kremer Starring: Jeff Kao, Penny Werner, Nancy Kimball, Kris Caltagirone, Deniz Demirer, Barry Newman, Daniel Kremer Indie Film Review by: Jack Bottomley
When you look at cults and their representation in cinema over the years, you get an interesting cross-section of ideas and approaches. From the haunting horror of The Wicker Man, Rosemary’s Baby, The Conspiracy and The Kill List to the deeply layered drama of The Master to disquieting sensibilities of The Sound of My Voice and Martha Marcy May Marlene, cinema – just like reality – has different views and perceptions of societal cults. Perhaps this is why such subject matter is so alluring (albeit challenging) for filmmakers to tackle and in Raise Your Kids On Seltzer, Daniel Kremer offers up another film that handles some ambitious and ambiguous ideas.
Terry (Jeff Kao) and Tessa (Penny Werner) are two retired “deprogrammers” (people who kidnap people away from oppressive cults to re-adjust them to reality) but the tedium of their new job making vapid corporate videos mixed with turbulent writing work and an upsetting reminder of the consequences of their past has put their relationship under strain and things are about to get more problematic with an unexpected deprogrammer assignment offer.
Starting with some pieces of the puzzle in place (a quotation highlighting the film’s relationship-centric story and a definition of deprogramming), Raise Your Kids On Seltzer then slowly but surely reaches its unexpected end goal, asking us a great deal of questions along the way. While rough around the edges (some lines of dialogue feel forced), if you have the patience to adapt to the movie’s pace, there is a very worthwhile story here of psychology, morality and humanity. Kremer does not shy away from the inherent darkness of the subject of cults and control (aided by moments of foreboding scoring by Tom Scott) but he likewise does not avoid the problematical nature of deprogramming, with an early plot development asking us from the start about the consequences of their work.
Like Martha Marcy May Marlene, some may lose focus on the film’s intentions but the answers to the moral quandaries are not freely provided, nor are the resolutions to the lead couple’s personal conflicts and everything here is given purpose. Terry and Tessa are two very authentic, freethinking and analytical minds and the pressures mount for both through a story that is generously dotted with themes realistic to us as viewers. The ambivalence Terry has to his new work, the clashes Tessa has with her twin sister (also played by Werner), the stifled artistic output both suffer from as their issues come to boil, all of these stressors are each developed as the story never forgets its cult subject but only really comes to properly embrace it in the final third. For many this may be frustrating, as the premise suggests something different but this slow progression to seeing the deprogrammers actually at work is necessary to allow us to grasp these two people as fully rendered characters and the finale – and a dastardly little twist – rewards your investment.
Like Director of Photography Aaron Hollander’s imagery, the characters feel genuine and this gives the film, despite a couple of scriptural flaws, a raw power. Jeff Kao and Penny Werner are fantastic and emotional as the central couple and their relationship feels real to witness, with arguments that feel as relatable as the moments of tenderness. They are the core to proceedings and around them the script (written by Kremer, Kao and Werner) can flex its cognitive muscles and take its time to get to where it is going. Some supporting performances are less effective and there are a few characters that feel to come and go to little end but there are some notable turns from Nancy Kimball (who is excellent at the height of the film) and a small but great role by Barry Newman as Bill Tannery, a rapid fire attorney for a cult leader.
Overall Raise Your Kids On Seltzer is a most interesting piece of work, and to say it was shot across 15 days, the craft feels very thoughtful and enthusiastically made. Kremer chooses to develop his leads over diving straight into the world of cultdom and in turn seeks out some interesting themes (as well as a few personal tributes to filmmaker Sidney J. Furie) as he works towards a quietly shattering crescendo that asks us what is right? Who is right? And how can we be sure we are on the correct path?
Raise Your Kids On Seltzer is available to view now on Fandor.
Watch the official movie trailer below...