Polish filmmaker Malgorzata Szumowska’s dramatic feature In the Name Of… won the award for Best Feature Film at 2013’s Berlin Film Festival and received a sufficiently warm welcome when it was release in the US later that year. Since then, she’s directed a couple of other Polish-language titles and now returns with an English-language feature that sees her as a more confident storyteller than ever. Written by C.S. McMullen (a first-time feature writer), The Other Lamb centers on Selah (Raffey Cassidy, Vox Lux), a teenager who’s been raised in a cult of women (mothers in red, daughters like her in blue) following the man they call the Shepherd (Michiel Huisman, perhaps best known as the re-cast Daario Nahairs in HBO’s “Game of Thrones”).
There’s been something of a boon of films about young women asserting their independence and agency in brazen, sometimes violent, not always healthy ways, from last year’s exceptional The Nightingale to Swallow, just recently released on VOD, and several in between. The Other Lamb enters that conversation as it smartly is less interested in how the Shepherd has built his following or what drives him to be such a megalomaniac and instead sets its focus on Selah’s experience of this world just as she’s becoming old enough to understand exactly what’s going on.
Selah and her sisters and mothers live in a secluded forest enclave with the Shepherd where their primary role is to tend to duties like cooking and cleaning and to the whims and teachings of the Shepherd. He is their leader, their provider, their everything. Though this life is all Selah knows, we come to realize early on that she’s got a mind of her own the moment she is so bold as to contradict something the Shepherd has told them in front of a sister. It leads to something of a fist-fight between them until one of the mothers intervenes. She sends Selah on an errand out to “the hut” as a sort of punishment, where she’s to bring food to one of the wives who’s fallen out of the Shepherd’s good graces.
As part of the compound’s upkeep, the women tend a literal flock of sheep; out with the flock one day, Selah, who is just beginning to learn about what it means—physiologically—to become a woman, discovers a ewe in distress after giving birth, the lamb lying nearly dead in the grass next to its mother. It triggers something gruesome in her, and its our first glimpse that McMullen and Szumowska have created something more graphic and grim than initially anticipated. Edited with sharp cuts to reinforce the complexity of Selah’s deep despair and confusion in her current circumstances, Cassidy exudes a fierceness that only intensifies as the Shepherd decrees that the compound must move to a new location after law enforcement comes sniffing around for information on the group.
The journey is an arduous one for the women and children blindly following their leader’s direction, and soon the group’s tragic losses reveal the depravity of the Shepherd’s true character. Not that any cult is harmless, but this one is particularly icky. By the time Selah, who’s notably the Shepherd’s favorite daughter, is old enough to be “christened” with his particular form of grace, she’s having none of it. Populated throughout with brutal imagery and an anguish felt not only by Selah but the women she comes to rely on for her education, Szumowska’s film is, like many in this particular genre of oppressed women fighting back, not for the faint of heart. But also like the many films it echoes (sister films, perhaps?), it’s a thrilling, welcome narrative that not only unabashedly disregards the pull of the patriarchy but exists outside of it entirely.