A tender and compassionate debut feature by writer/directors Mark Slutsky and Sarah Watts, the latter of whom grew up gay in a Jehovah’s Witness community, “You Can Live Forever” lets the romantic tension between its protagonists build slowly and naturally, in stolen glances and small touches. As Jaime and Marike circle each other, at once exhilarated and agonized by one another’s company, this ’90s-set film lingers in the uncertainty of first love and in the nervous wonder of queer yearning.
Slutsky and Watts are equally interested in what happens after Marike one night follows a prayer with a passionate kiss, and once she and Jaime embark on a forbidden affair behind closed doors (or inside movie-theater bathroom stalls, as it were). That community elders would stop the relationship is understood from the outset. Even Marike’s suspicious older sister (Deragh Campbell) must be avoided. But “You Can Live Forever” finds its most potent distillation of the conflict between love and faith in Marike herself, who fervently believes, like the other Witnesses, that Armageddon is imminent and, unlike the other Witnesses, that the long-promised “new system of things” will allow her and Jaime to be together, forever. And if Jaime doesn’t share her beliefs? Then, Marike answers, “I can believe enough for the both of us.”
Contemplating devotion, whether to a person or a higher power, as a form of endurance born of blind faith, “You Can Live Forever” takes care not to criticize its characters for their honest convictions. It’s empathetic even in how it treats the community’s authority figures, who are polite and occasionally unkind but always act from a place of faith. This approach, in turn, sharpens the film’s real critiques: of closed-mindedness, of cultures of fear and isolation, and of the danger that indoctrination poses to young people still developing their senses of self.
Few films have been made about Jehovah’s Witnesses; even fewer have engaged seriously with the strict insularity of their belief system, though that’s started to change in recent years. Dea Kulumbegashvili’s “Beginning” and Daniel Kokotajlo’s “Apostasy” explored the consequences of patriarchal submission for women in the faith. Richard Eyre’s “The Children Act” critiqued its religious opposition to blood transfusions. In its understated, unassuming way, “You Can Live Forever” offers a highly nuanced depiction of the sect’s membership, sympathizing with those born into the religion, accepting those who’ve embraced it as adults, and implicating its cloistered, authoritarian stricture all the same.