In "Them That Follow," a snake-handling church in Appalachia is thrown into crisis when a young parishioner is bitten by a rattler. Despite the prayers of his community, he grows worse by the hour. And as his fever rises, his cries for a doctor are ignored by his friends, his pastor, even his parents.
"Doctor ain't gonna do nothing for you," says Walton Goggins as Pastor Lemuel Childs. "Only honest faith."
"Them That Follow" earned strong reviews at this year's Sundance Film Festival, where it was picked up by what is now 1091 Media. Part of the appeal was surely the film's cast, which includes recent Oscar-winner Olivia Colman ("The Favourite"), up-and-comer Kaitlyn Dever ("Booksmart"), Alice Englert (of the acclaimed BBC series "Top of the Lake") and Lewis Pullman (the upcoming "Top Gun: Maverick"). The film, which arrives in theaters Aug. 2, is also a timely glimpse into what's often called the "forgotten America" -- rural, religious, leery of change.
"There are a lot of people who are struggling with issues of family and religion as the world modernizes," says Bradley Gallo, one of the film's producers, who was raised in Syosset and Oyster Bay Cove. "I thought this film was about a struggle of today."
As it happens, the film's two creators have complicated relationships with religion. Britt Poulton, 36, half of the writing-directing team, was raised by a Mormon family in Utah; the team's other half, Dan Madison Savage, 31, grew up Catholic and gay in Pennsylvania. Both ended up leaving their churches. The two met as graduate students in the University of Southern California's producing program, then began collaborating on the screenplay that would become "Them That Follow."
"I was really interested in exploring a coming-of-age story with religious themes," Poulton says. "To come into your own identity is hard enough for anybody. But in religious families, I think that's especially true because the stakes for self-exploration are so much higher. You have to confront the consequences of not just this life, but the next life."
In the fall of 2018, several years after completing their first draft, Poulton and Savage began filming in the area around Youngstown, Ohio, which stood in for Appalachia. The filmmakers hadn't been able to meet face-to-face with any snake-handling churches, who, according to Savage, are often targeted by local law-enforcement and tend to avoid outsiders. Instead, Poulton and Savage arranged for their cast and crew to attend a Pentecostal church's service in the Youngstown area.
The experience wasn't exactly new to Goggins, who grew up in a Baptist community in Georgia. "I could almost guess what they'd be having for lunch," Goggins says with a laugh. What's more, Goggins was familiar with a wide range of religious beliefs thanks to a freethinking mother who introduced him to the teachings of India's Paramahansa Yogananda, the American mystic Joel Goldsmith and the mysterious Urantia Foundation.
"I grew up going to Pentecostal churches and Baptist and Methodist churches," says Goggins, "and sitting inside sweat lodges. It was kind of a lot to put together."
For Gallo, producing "Them That Follow" on a modest budget was its own act of faith. Gallo and his company, Amasia Entertainment, took a risk on two first-time filmmakers and set about shooting the movie for under $3 million. Gallo describes it as a "grassroots" production: He helped find a local crew in Ohio, played chauffeur to a pregnant Poulton (he drove her to the set every day, she says) and, when visa issues kept an important cast-member from entering the country, helped bring in Pullman as a last-minute replacement. (Pullman did a 2 a.m. emergency audition by Skype, then caught a plane for Ohio to join the production).
"I think the world of that man," Goggins says of Gallo. "He worked so hard to make this movie with the finite amount of money and time that we had, and as authentically as he could. Without him it never would have been made."
Gallo and Pullman recently brought "Them That Follow" to the Stony Brook Film Festival, marking a full-circle moment for the producer. Gallo had screened his directorial debut, a summer-camp comedy-drama called "Magic Rock," at the festival back in 2001. "Now I'm coming home 20 years later," he says, "with a completely different film."