The Manson Family revisited

Post by Kerri Brkich in

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Kristen Hager in Leslie, My Name Is Evil

Reginald Harkema’s new film, Leslie, My Name is Evil, is a thought-provoking look at the Manson Family murders within the context of society’s moral relativism. A uniformly solid cast adds nuance to the flower power era’s clichés, and the central characters’ draw you into a black and white world that conveniently ignores the grey on all sides of the spectrum.

The two leads – Leslie (Kristen Hager) and Perry (Gregory Smith) – are flip sides to the same coin. Both are disconnected from their family, and reality, but make very different choices in life that lead to opposite sides of the courtroom: she is charged with first-degree murder and he is one of the jurors.

Hager’s Leslie is the quintessential little girl lost, the perfect follower (the perfect weapon), or the perfect victim. After her parents divorce and her mother forces Leslie to abort her hippy musician boyfriend’s baby (try saying that three times fast), she tunes in, drops out and follows Charlie, a svengali who promises salvation at first and then leads his “family” into the depths of drugs and depravity. Hager’s portrayal is sweet, naïve, scary, and achingly heartbreaking because she could be any one of us—a mixed up suburban kid and former homecoming queen who trusts the wrong people and commits the ultimate sin.

The juxtaposition to Leslie is Smith’s Perry, who misses the ‘60’s entirely. A good Christian boy, the closest Perry gets to hippy counterculture is viewing the student protests from his university lab window. Smith plays Perry with a perfect mix of repression and rebellion, he may be a “good Christian” but he doesn’t agree with the right wing agenda of his father, and he doesn’t want to be a prude like his girlfriend when it comes to sex—there is constant tension just beneath the surface of his existence. But unlike Leslie, Perry makes all the safe choices: he graduates university, lines up a good job with a chemical company (thereby avoiding the draft), and proposes to his good Christian girlfriend. As an upstanding member of society he accepts his call to jury duty, but finds himself falling in love with the murderess across the aisle.

The movie casts an unflinching eye on murder—those committed by the hippy murder cult, but also those carried out under the banner of war. Some of the most interesting exchanges happen around Perry’s family dinner table. Perry’s Dad (Peter Keleghan) has no problem condemning the “demons” in the courtroom, but then in the same breath is an apologist for the atrocities of My Lai. Murder within the right moral context is clearly not murder.

Leslie also pulls no punches when looking at the social control exerted through familial expectations (both Manson and biological) and the use of Christian imagery to reinforce them. Charlie the cult leader goes so far as to hang himself up on a cross, he is the “father,” the god who knows all and should be obeyed. Perry’s Dad, when faced with the embarrassment of his son potentially sidetracking the murder trial blithely states in church, “God’s will and mine are pretty much the same, so you should just listen to me.”

The movie relies heavily on imagery, some of it works and some of it hits you over the head like a hammer—I thought the last frame in particular ended a little heavy handed. But overall, it’s a balanced lens that captures the era well, and I couldn’t help but make comparisons to modern America.

The cast is rounded out by an excellent group of supporting actors. Standouts were Peter Keleghan as Perry’s Dad and Kristin Adams as Dorothy, Perry’s Fiancé. They were the perfect foil for the hippy counterculture and their smug rightness, or in many instances righteousness, illustrated how we’re all influenced to give up control and be blindly manipulated—especially when the cause is socially acceptable.

Leslie, My Name is Evil was written and directed by Reginald Harkema (A Girl is A Girl, Better Off In Bed, and Monkey Warfare) and opens at select theatres in Vancouver and Toronto on Friday May 21st.

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Harkema is well-known in local film circles for his early work here in Vancouver. I must admit I'm compelled after reading this review, despite the gruesome subject matter. The Manson family is really a one of a kind phenomenon, and is due for an updated treatment.

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