A powerful New York Times feature published last month followed a now-deceased young woman with cancer as she and her boyfriend made plans to freeze her brain once she died. The hope was that one day, down the road, neuroscience might have advanced enough to recover her mind. Part heartbreaking love story, part futuristic investigation, the piece, at its core, asks one very difficult question: how far would you go for even the slightest possibility of seeing a dead loved one again?
It’s a query also at the heart of The Devout, a British Columbia film that had its world premiere at the Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF) last week. The drama trails Darryl (Charlie Carrick) and his wife Jan (Ali Liebert), a couple consumed by the deterioration of their terminally ill daughter Abigail. Obsessed with outer space, and in particular one knitted toy rocket, Abigail (Olivia Martin) starts making comments to Darryl that suggest she lived a former life as an astronaut. Abigail’s knowledge of the Apollo 1 mission is so specific, so correct, that Darryl starts to believe it might be true. And if she lived a life before, he reasons, she could live again.
Set in an evangelical Christian town on Vancouver Island, the film asks us to check our own beliefs, question spirituality, and dissect the intentions of organized faith. “God will always take care of you,” Jan proclaims to Abigail on more than one occasion. She seems to truly believe it the first time she says it, but her emphasis teeters as Darryl pulls away. Religion stops providing comfort for him; instead he risks his marriage to seek help from an erratic spiritualist (David Nykl) claiming he can extend Abigail’s life.
The acting is good, though a bit forced at times, and the story does weave a smooth narrative. Underlying the crisis of faith is the touching relationship between Darryl and Abigail; there is something inherently special about the father-daughter dynamic, and watching the two of them light fireworks at night, counting down until blast off, is sweetly comforting. The young Olivia Martin is impressive as Abigail, with notable sincerity.
The Devout is the first feature-length for writer/director Connor Gaston, who actually missed the VIFF premiere in order to show the film at the Busan International Film Festival in South Korea (a fine excuse, certainly). Gaston is only 26, and “The Devout” demonstrates that his future is bright; winning this year’s VIFF BC Emerging Filmmaker Award doesn’t hurt, either.
The couple from the New York Times article spent countless time, money, and energy on the faintest prospect of one day being together again. Some people thought they were crazy to pursue that path, and really, only the slow passage of time will determine whether or not their efforts were worth it. Until then—whenever then is—all that one has is faith.