Film: My Scientology Movie
Director: John Dower
Starring: Louis Theroux
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
After coming out in the U.K. last year, the British documentary My Scientology Movie was released this month in select theatres in Canada and the U.S. The seemingly random, select releases mean it’s an easy film to miss — but that would be a mistake.
My Scientology Movie is an investigation of an impossible organization to investigate. Its creator and presenter, Louis Theroux, is known for his unique style of investigative documentary-making, getting up close and personal with his films’ subjects while also gently mocking them. Perhaps the most famous example is his stay with the Westboro Baptist Church.
In a Reddit Ask Me Anything (AMA) thread — which Theroux said was probably being watched by Scientologists — he describes his style as “about forming relationships in a very human way,” adding “going native is part of the job.”
But as the film’s opening narration says, he could not get close to Scientology. So the documentary would have to do something different.
Luckily, different is something Theroux does well. He approaches whatever insane situation he’s investigating with practiced naïveté and calm amusement — a style that definitely works when dealing with Scientology.
“It doesn't take much effort to keep my cool,” he says. “I'm not a confrontational guy.”
You get the sense of the Church of Scientology being a deep rabbit hole, into which you only get quick but clear glimpses throughout the film. The intrigue starts when Theroux enlists former high up member of the Church, Marty Rathbun, to help recreate events. As actors re-enact training drills, which involve people having to not react as someone tries to get at their deepest insecurities, saying things like “your wife doesn’t love you,” it gets strange and sinister fast.
Theroux says, “The nastiness is unreal. In the name of religion!” They’ve targeted him too, sending “scary legal letters” after the documentary’s release.
The movie itself gets even more complicated when we realize that Theroux isn’t just investigating the church, but they’re also investigating him. He even ends up face to face with Scientologists, both parties filming the other. “Are you making a documentary as well?” Theroux asks.
It’s a tense scene, but also characteristically funny. When flood lights suddenly turn on around him outside Scientology headquarters, Theroux comments “that’s actually quite helpful.” And he ends up having a surreal argument with the Church members who confront him about filming.
Other conflicts are less humorous. “You’re a fucking asshole,” Rathbun tells Theroux venomously at one point. The camera doesn’t shy away from these resentments between the filmmaker and subject. It’s personal to a squeamish degree.
Theroux never gains access to the Church of Scientology, but he doesn’t have to. At the end of the day it’s a wholly original approach that retains what’s great about Theroux’s documentaries, taking the audience on an unpredictable journey and providing shrewd, in-depth portraits of the people encountered along the way.