It’s not always fair to review a film based on what it isn’t. But that inclination grows when the work itself teases a divergent narrative route of interest, only for the ultimate focus to send that plot thread away for a story altogether more conventional for the territory it explores. Such is the case with The Other Lamb, the English-language debut of Polish director Malgorzata Szumowska.
Living in a remote rural area, Selah (Raffey Cassidy) has never known a life outside the self-sufficient community of which she is a member: all women, except for their leader, Shepherd (Michiel Huisman). Each in Shepherd’s ‘flock’ is either his wife or a daughter, and Selah, devoted in her faith, was born into this sect. Shepherd is their guardian and teacher, and has helped ‘cleanse’ them from the rot of the outside world. Of his children, he has taken a particular shine to the strong-willed Selah.
Law enforcement forces the group to vacate the deep woodland land where they have lived for years. Determined to find a new Eden further inland, Shepherd leads the women, one heavily pregnant, on an arduous trek. Along the way, Selah experiences a crisis of faith and horrific, gory visions, while the onset of puberty brings its own set of complications, not least the advances of her father who’s looking to Selah’s promotion from the status of daughter to that of a wife – the film colour-codes the two ranks with red and blue clothing.
Speaking of the wives, Selah’s beliefs are also called into question with her interactions with Sarah (Denise Gough), a scarred older member described as a ‘broken thing’ by Shepherd. With Sarah, there’s a story of a regretful woman who’s long lived with the consequences of implied terrible acts in this cult but unable to see a safe means of emancipation. An older cult veteran POV for a tale of doubt in the face of toxic male leadership is a rarer prospect – while The Other Lamb still has piercing scenes, its story path with Selah is a lot more familiar.
The Other Lamb was seen and reviewed at the Glasgow Film Festival 2020.