Shepherd (Michiel Huisman) literally herds his own flock in Polish director Malgorzata Szumowska’s new film The Other Lamb (from screenwriter CS McMullen). He has gathered women – deemed somehow broken before encountering him – and given them a belief system, rooted in a pagan cultish form of Christianity it seems. The women convert, joining a sisterhood of sorts as wives and mothers, all serving the wishes and whims of Shepherd.
They live well-off the grid, in a wooded community, tending to their own animals and the needs of the whole. A hierarchy exists, color-coded clothing delineates the wives from children and during menstruation or the start of cycles for the youngest, those women are separated from the main group. It is curious to note that there are no other male offspring. At one point, we are reminded that there can only be one ram in a flock.
One young woman, Selah (Raffey Cassidy) stands on the cusp of womanhood. She’s eager and headstrong, attentively assessing the roles of the wives, figuring out ways to position herself to get in Shepherd’s good graces. All of the wives long for his favor, to feel his serene and loving gaze on their skin. He is the sun, even amongst the outcasts in seclusion.
But there is brutality in Shepherd, which Selah catches glimpses of, which intensifies as her approach to womanhood nears. He enforces his rule with an iron fist, sometimes literally, and individual members of the flock are not above manipulating situations for their own gain.
When the outside world, in the form of a police officer who comes upon their makeshift commune, orders Shepherd and the flock to move on, the journey to a new Eden gains mythic weight in what appears to be a post-apocalyptic setting. They encounter abandoned cabins, which Shepherd tells the young like Selah to avoid because they are broken places full of broken things, but Selah begins to wonder and imagine what those places, things and ultimately the people who lived there were like.
At the same time, Selah starts to hear – more and more – from some of the older wives how much she reminds them of her mother. Within such a communal system, it would seem that children wouldn’t be intimately connected to their birth mother, since all wives and older children share responsibility for the youngest in the flock, but Selah’s mother died, leaving a lasting impression on both her surviving sisters and Shepherd.
These anecdotal snatches of memory shared with Selah are akin to similar sentiments shared with the Connelly sisters – Priscilla (Sophie Lowe) and Mary Beth (Morgan Saylor) – in Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy’s slow-burning neo-noir tale Blow the Man Down, which just recently premiered on Amazon. In that film, the sisters struggle to hold their own following the loss of their mother after a prolonged sickness. They live in a small isolated fishing town in Maine, and Mary Beth, in particular, feels stymied, eager to escape to live beyond the community.
A run-in, post-funeral, with the town’s bad seed (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), forces Mary Beth to enlist Priscilla’s assistance in covering up a murder. As if things weren’t tough enough, the sisters realize they may also be close to losing the family’s business (a fish market) and their home.
But along the way, as the screws seem to tighten, Priscilla and Mary Beth start hearing stories about their mother from a few of the older ladies in town (June Squibb, Marceline Hugot, and Annette O’Toole) and they receive visits from Enid Devlin (Margo Martindale), the matriarch in charge of the local flophouse. Enid tells the sisters of her own surprising relationship with their mother and before long, we (and they) recognize where power truly resides in their community and what it takes to maintain that structure.
That is exactly the same situation Selah finds herself in, as she biologically enters womanhood and contends with recurring dreams or visions of where he life might lead and whether or not it includes becoming a wife of Shepherd’s. Each and every step along Selah’s path feels full of portent, but notions of fate and destiny take a backseat as her passions seize control.
The Other Lamb achieves its hushed state of grace thanks to the otherworldly presence and performances of Huisman and Cassidy. In past work (Orphan Black and Treme on the television side, World War Z and The Age of Adaline on the big screen), Huisman has maintained a beatific aura despite the darkness his characters often find themselves in. Here, in the quiet contemplative moments, he inspires faith and fidelity with a touch or a gesture, but flips the switch without hesitation, striking fear in the flock.
Cassidy though has the more difficult challenge. Selah’s journey is a coming-of-age, full of rushing hormones and unfamiliar emotional swings, but also with a nearly pre-ordained fate looming. Is she the next step in the evolution of the community? Can she maintain faith in Shepherd, while also testing the limits of her own new reality? To give voice and herself over to such a role could be overwhelming, but Cassidy finds a truth that feels perfectly right for Selah.
Selah and the Connelly sisters join a new sisterhood onscreen. These indie women are doing it for themselves and along with their female creators, writing a narrative for wild women who are ready to take charge, women made as The Other Lamb tells us, “of midnight and teeth.”
With mothers like these, who needs the sun?