Life is what you make of it, but the world you’re born into goes a long way towards setting the table. Your family, whether biological or otherwise, and the environment they’ve created for you, help shape not only your present reality but also your future possibility. But still, ultimately, life is what you make of it, and for the women of The Other Lamb, what they’ve made for themselves and each other is a dangerous lie.
Selah (Raffey Cassidy) is a teenager born into a band of women who worship at the altar of the group’s sole male, a Christ cosplayer named Shepherd (Michiel Huisman), but her blind obedience hits some speed bumps when they’re forced to pull up stakes and look for a new home. The women all wear Puritan-like frocks that distinguish by color the wives from the daughters, and Selah’s thrilled at the prospect of joining the former in the near future. That feeling starts to ebb, though, as Shepherd’s control over their words, actions, and thoughts begins to wear thin. They wander for days on end through rough terrain and worse weather, and when the arrival of her period leaves Selah unclean and forced to distance herself along with an old wife now deemed to be “a broken thing” she discovers some truths about the only man she’s ever known.
Cults continue to fascinate and have seen their darker aspects brought to the screen in memorable films from The Wicker Man (1973) to The Invitation (2015), and more often than not those movies use the setting to tell a horrifying narrative. The Other Lamb, by contrast, is no horror movie despite its suggestive teases (and marketing), and it doesn’t need to be. Director Malgorzata Szumowska and writer C.C. McMullen instead seem content delivering a coming of age drama anchored with a compelling lead performance from Cassidy and gorgeous, haunting visuals lensed by cinematographer Michal Englert.
As well-acted and attractive of a slow burn as the film is, though, the story is noticeably slight. We meet these characters as is and without the benefit of back story or personal detail, and only two of the women have any real degree of presence here. Selah is the lead as it’s her journey towards awakening and womanhood, both literal and metaphorical, that the film captures. Visions of a life unlived and daily doses of a reality that sees her and the others subject to Shepherd’s whims work to break down her own blind faith, and questions follow. Why aren’t there other males? What really happened to Selah’s mother? Why is he the only one allowed to tell stories? She comes to challenge his expectations, and her simmering outrage only grows after speaking with the woman Shepherd keeps apart from the rest.
Selah’s resistant at first to the information Sarah (Denise Gough) shares, but there’s a truth in the older woman’s face that’s undeniable. Gough captures beautifully the shattered soul of someone seemingly smart enough to know better but still unable to fix her own situation. “I’m afraid,” she says. “I’ve been for here so long, I don’t know who I am anymore.” It’s the only real answer the film provides regarding the bigger questions about who would willingly subject themselves to such a situation and why, and while delivered compellingly by Gough it stands apart from the rest of the film in its power.
While Sarah’s fear is understandable and ultimately human, the film teases more traditional horror elements through the use of bloody visions and a persistent goat, but they amount to very little. Events transpire in the third act that leave too many questions unanswered in part because of its rushed nature. Too much happens off screen, moments promising both horror and catharsis, and viewers are instead left feeling somewhat shortchanged. Shepherd’s been at this for at least fifteen years, but these women either succumb or rise up seemingly overnight making for an unconvincing conclusion to a pattern that’s lasted a lifetime.
Huisman, no stranger to cult movies, is saddled with a fairly basic leader here, but while we have little understanding of what makes him so appealing to these women there are small touches that turn up the creep factor anyway. His penchant for sticking his fingers in the women’s mouths, one to the point of gagging, is revolting. Shepherd’s use of string (wire?) to enclose and mark his area is also an interesting design choice that unsettles in its beauty.
The Other Lamb offers nothing new with its look at cult mentality and chooses to avoid thrills of any kind, but it remains a visually attractive meditation on the path chosen by the very few. We may not be privy to their reasoning and motivations, but the breaking point that sees a gentle lamb strike back against the pervy shepherd is every bit as relatable.