The somewhat aimless My Scientology Movie may be entertaining, but it’s far from essential.
Scientology’s shady practices are no secret. If a religion created by a science-fiction writer that peddles a path to enlightenment for a price tag stretching into the seven figures isn’t suspect enough, the troubling claims made by former members about the Church of Scientology’s manipulation and outright abuse have led to disturbing exposés over the past few years. Lawrence Wright’s 2013 book Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief seems to have opened the floodgates, as its corresponding HBO documentary has since been joined by former scientologist Leah Remini’s A&E series about dealing with the fallout of leaving the secretive, highly defensive and retribution-minded religion.
My Scientology Movie may be late to the party, but it’s aware of that fact. Directed by John Dower, this film is famed BBC documentarian Louis Theroux’s show, as he writes and stars in it, meeting the uncooperative church’s intimidation tactics with a stiff upper lip and a polite persistence.
At the beginning of the film, Theroux announces his desire to be one of the first outsiders to document the positive side to the Church of Scientology, but when he is unsurprisingly met with refusal from its all-powerful leader, David Miscavige—who has given only a single TV interview since rising to the helm of the organization after L. Ron Hubbard’s 1986 death—Theroux instead decides to hire actors to reenact allegations made by defectors.
To ensure his project’s authenticity, Theroux enlists the aid of Marty Rathbun, a former executive and self-proclaimed enforcer of the church who was also featured in Going Clear. He’s clearly got an ax to grind, and with good reason; we witness church members harassing him repeatedly. After a series of contingency plans that feels largely like the filmmakers are simply winging it as they go along, Rathbun emerges as the most compelling aspect of My Scientology Movie, as he relishes the opportunity to audition actors to play a maniacal and violent Miscavige. For as righteous as his own anger at the church’s harassment may seem, the film’s most intriguing moments occur when Theroux fearlessly asserts that Rathbun is simply experiencing the same treatment he’d personally dished out to others for decades.
As for actual confrontations with church officials, the film doesn’t offer much besides surly, evasive members telling the documentary crew to get lost when they repeatedly try filming a razor wire-encircled compound. Theroux does seem to get followed by a suspicious vehicle at one point, and church members almost comically show up outside the film-within-a-film’s set, pointing cameras of their own and saying they’re going to make their own documentary about Theroux. But these incidents don’t shed much light on the secretive religion, and they only show how paranoid and strange the behavior of its members can be when they act as tools of the unseen leadership.
For those enthralled by Scientology’s many controversies, My Scientology Movie takes a novel approach to the subject matter that is worth watching. But there’s not much here that can’t be learned elsewhere—hell, even Miscavige’s own estranged father, Ron, has written a book about his decades-long involvement in the church and the creepy 18-month surveillance his son allegedly ordered upon him when Ron finally left. With so much more in-depth reporting on and first-hand accounts of former church members readily available, the somewhat aimless My Scientology Movie may be entertaining, but it’s far from essential.