This feature debut by Sean Durkin tells the story of a young woman, Martha (Elizabeth Olsen), who has just escaped from an abusive cult and struggles to come back to normal life. The film starts when Martha runs away from the hippie-style commune in which she has lived for two years, and goes with her sister and brother-in-law to their summer house by a lake. Martha tells them that she had been living with a boyfriend all this time, but they find her behavior extremely weird.
The director alternates images of the present with scenes of what happened while at the cult, where Martha received the name of Marcy May by charismatic leader Patrick (John Hawkes).
The story relies heavily on a disturbed Martha, powerfully played by Elizabeth Olsen, the youngest of the Olsen sisters. She manages to build a character that is both strong and fragile in a subtle way, without us knowing much of her background. Much of the focus is in how she seems to be living in a dream after being in the cult, her growing paranoia and inability to accept certain things that are considered normal in society.
The cult is gradually described from its more positive aspects (sense of community, country life) to the more dreadful ones, which I won’t reveal so as not to ruin the film. The filmmaker succeeds in depicting the cult in quite a naturalistic way, with beautiful shots of countryside in summer and a gradual introduction to some of its rules (for example, that all girls answer the phone under the name of Marlene), disturbing habits and incoherencies (how women and men eat and sleep separately but then have no restraints regarding nakedness and sex).
Unfortunately, the most interesting happens in the first half of the movie; there is a point in which the story gets stuck, when the spectator has seen most of the past and the present and is waiting for the story to move forward. But this only happens through some dramatic effects and an ambiguous end. Though the movie is really interesting for some of its aspects and the performance by Elizabeth Olsen, I wish it would have gone farther in its depiction of a traumatized cult survivor.