British documentary mainstay Louis Theroux is no stranger to some of the world’s more sensitive topics – he’s visited prisons that are home to some of the world’s most notorious criminals, he’s spent weekends with the now infamous Jimmy Savile – all the while offering the same friendly, softly questioning approach. He’s never too afraid to ask certain questions, and he knows exactly the right time to do so – and the topic of Scientology is something that, perhaps, was inevitable for the veteran film-maker to tackle given the amount of time he’s been on our screens.
My Scientology Movie perhaps isn’t your typical probe into one of the most-talked about organised religions on the planet – it’s more of a series of reconstructions of alleged encounters between high-ranking Scientologists and those working their way into the bosom of the family. Theroux takes time to meet and discuss various alleged altercations that may have occurred behind doors at the Church of Scientology – while offering a running conceit of hiring actors to effectively play out allegations made by ex-members who have agreed to meet with him.
My Scientology Movie, despite its intentions, isn’t the shock exposé that it perhaps wants to be – it balances itself neatly on the word of a number of disgraced and excommunicated members of the Church, and while their testimony is fascinating and, at times, disturbing, there is little to counterbalance their word other than rebuttals from the Church itself. There were no existing Scientologists who took part willingly in Theroux’s documentary, but the Church has made sure to make its feelings known on his film-making in the process.
With any Theroux documentary, there are moments of humour and light-heartedness, and there certainly are elements here, twinged with shock value – it’s a documentary which certainly tries to make the case for unorthodox actions taking place behind Scientology’s closed doors, and while it doesn’t probe too deeply into what makes the Church tick as a whole, it stays tightly focused upon what it is that drove certain members to leave, and what could be expected from some of the Church’s high-ranking members. All allegations, as stated, have been refuted by those within Scientology at the time of the film having been made.
My Scientology Movie - Official Trailer (Magnolia Pictures & Magnet Releasing)
Theroux makes brave attempts to connect with and probe members of the Church who try to dissuade him from trespassing near their headquarters – and while his gumption is always a treat to see on film whenever it rolls around, there is a great feeling of futility surrounding this movie. It’s one that loves to speculate and to discuss what may or may not be happening, but never truly seizes on enough to really leave the viewer feeling stunned. The allegations made here are particularly shocking – and, if true, are as fascinating as they are abhorrent – but as the Church is still operating, and as such claims are unlikely to ever be backed up by anyone barring those who leave Scientology, it’s hard to glean such closure from such a documentary on the topic.
That being said, it certainly makes for gripping, and perhaps even tense viewing – there are genuine moments of drama between Theroux and some of the ex-Scientologists, and there are even more from moments where current Church members approach those who have left the religion – making for some particularly uncomfortable viewing. Theroux has a way of really trying to get to grips with the people he interviews by making friends with them and then approaching them as candidly as possible. With a topic as contentious as organised religion, and with the Church of Scientology largely opting to avoid to offer such closure to anyone on the outside, it was sadly clear from the beginning that this would not be a documentary with much closure – spectacle, certainly, but little in the way of certainty.
That being said, My Scientology Movie is a fascinating look into the knowns and unknowns of the Church of Scientology, and it’s conducted in a unique and often humorous way that will resonate with many viewers. However, despite it providing particularly gripping viewing during some of the more uncomfortable moments, it’s a documentary that perhaps fails to add little more than to the weight of mystery surrounding the Church – it’s not a documentary that finds solid answers, rather it chooses to re-enact anecdotes from ex-members in an effort to better understand what may or may not be happening behind closed doors. On these grounds, it’s a perfectly affable movie – one that anyone interested in the subject will be keen to watch and digest – but it’s argued that an altogether better movie that tackles the same topic with more breadth is the Peabody Award-winning Going Clear.
If it’s a topic that intrigues you, it’s pretty entertaining – but don’t expect it to provide any concrete answers or leads that you may be looking for.