“We’re taking a stab at an alternative lifestyle.”
The notion of unplugging from modern society and living a stripped-down life alongside a group of like-minded individuals will always be appealing to a segment of the population. One of Us, a low-budget indie about a journalist who falls in with a cult as she searches for her missing best friend, is more interested in the thriller aspects of its story than it is in exploring the reasons why people might want to retreat from society. The result is a tight, pulpy suspense flick that isn’t likely to gain a mass following.
“Anything for a story, right?”
Melanie (Christa B. Allen) is a journalist who comes to believe that best friend Haley (Lisseth Chavez) is in danger. Haley, who is part of a cult known as the Ascension Family Commune, has suddenly gone missing. Over the objections of protective big sister/former cop Sophie (Ashley Wood), Melanie pitches a story to her editor (Will Beinbrink) in which she infiltrates the cult.
With relative ease, Melanie runs into a couple of Ascension Family Commune members — friendly Venus (Carly Schroeder) and standoffish Luna (Chasty Ballesteros) — and worms her way onto the property run by cult leader Brent (Derek Smith). Melanie pretends to be a wayward girl named Mary and soon falls in with Brent’s cult. But as she tries to find out what happened to Haley — who changed her name to Ceres upon joining the cult — Melanie/Mary risks losing a grip on her own identity.
Director Blake Reigle, working from a script by Andrea Ajemian and Blaine Chiappetta, opens his film with an eerie scene showing us Haley/Ceres in peril and introducing us to the ethereal beauties who comprise the Ascension Family Commune. The model-esque eye candy on display lets us know right away this won’t exactly be a gritty exploration of life in a cult.
One of Us also has the look — soft lighting and dramatic close-ups — of a Lifetime thriller. I realize that sounds like an insult…because it mostly is. Fortunately, the movie was also shot on location in Idyllwild, a Southern California mountain resort that is part of the San Bernandino National Forest. This fact turns out to be the movie’s strongest asset; the idyllic setting is the strongest case the movie makes for Melanie finding the commune’s way of life appealing for the first part of the film.
Reigle also mixes in some genuinely creepy imagery, like the recurring dreams(?) Melanie has featuring a bunch of cult members hovering over her bed while she sleeps. One of Us also brushes up against the idea that cults like Ascension Family Commune largely appeal to (and prey on) troubled young women. Of course, the 85-minute movie doesn’t fully expand on why that might be…or why the girls in Brent’s cult have to look like they’d be at home on the cover of Maxim.
Allen — who formerly co-starred in ABC’s Revenge and is the most recognizable face in the cast — makes for a decent lead, even if Melanie is a terrible journalist. The actress projects spunk and resourcefulness even as the script requires Melanie to clumsily ask intrusive questions about Haley/Ceres that would tip anyone off. The bigger issue, however, is Smith’s performance as Brent, who is supposed to be an impossibly charismatic leader with far-reaching power and influence. At best, the actor projects the appeal of the lead singer of an experimental folk band (which Brent also happens to be). Schroeder and Ballesteros end up faring much better as Melanie’s frenemies, and the script generously gives both women more layers to play than you might expect at the outset.
One of Us isn’t likely to become a “cult classic”, but it’s a watchable, low-budget thriller with some pretty nice candy. I’m not saying you should go all-in on the Ascension Family Commune, but at the very least you should pick up a pamphlet.