You Can Live Forever is queer love story, set in a Jehovah’s Witnesses community — and rooted in pain
“Where is your mom?”
“She’s not in the truth anymore.”
“Do you ever see her?”
“Not since I was six.”
“We’re supposed to imagine that she’s dead.”
While it’s not how You Can Live Forever begins, that interaction between its two leads does a better job than any to set its tone and scope. The new movie from Canadian writer/director duo Sarah Watts and Mark Slutsky — already something of a festival darling and social media semi-sensation — takes that emotional theme and runs with it. Or, if not runs, gazes longingly out a window, as the saddest songs on your ’90s playlist echo quietly in the background.
Because like so many LGBTQ coming-of-age stories before it, You Can Live Forever is about crushing your heart into a pulp. And, like so many of those, it succeeds — though with an added note of misery.
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Originally known as You Can Live Forever in a Paradise on Earth back when the idea was a competitor in Telefilm’s 2013 Pitch This! program, the movie takes its title and premise from the Jehovah’s Witnesses Christian denomination. That name is a reference to the since discontinued Jehovah’s Witnesses publication titled You Can Live Forever in Paradise on Earth, itself a reference to the belief that a coming “new system of things” will eventually allow people to live eternally in a new heaven and earth.
In the scope of the movie, all that is primarily experienced and observed by two characters: teen loner Jaime (Ontario’s Anwen O’Driscoll) and relative do-gooder Marike (B.C.’s June Laporte). After her father dies and her mother suffers a breakdown, Jaime is sent from her hometown of Thunder Bay to live with her aunt Beth (Liane Balaban) and uncle Jean-Francois (Antoine Yared) in Saguenay, Que.
Though Jaime firmly rejects the religion for herself, both Beth and Jean-Francois’s lives are deeply woven into the local Jehovah’s Witnesses community. It’s a fact that the reserved-to-a-fault Jaime doesn’t exactly rebel against, but initially doesn’t take much interest in. It’s not until meeting the fervently devout Marike that she allows herself to take part in the bible studies, church meetings and field service like all the rest — all while the two move decidedly, and dangerously, beyond friendship.
Trauma as a trope
Mentally combining a film about a ’90s-era religious community with a narrative about gay youth should give you a blueprint for what’s to come. Heartache, pain and trauma are tropes so inherently associated with queer kids in cinema that a score of articles interpreted the equally tragic Oscar nominee Close as either adjacent to, or in the LGBTQ canon — despite it having no objectively gay characters. And because it involved suicide, male friendship and tears, so many people assumed Dear Evan Hansen must be about a boy bullied for his queerness they nearly rioted after discovering the actual (though admittedly bonkers) plot.
Without aping any narratives, the general feeling is just as present in You Can Live Forever — a style choice that, while effective for this story, has already become a suffocating emotional hallmark.
But however overly relied upon, the hurt Watts and Slutsky inflicted on their characters was cathartic enough to gain a viral following after a 2022 debut at Tribeca Film Festival — and a subsequent Skinamarink-style piracy campaign. Though this time, the film’s grassroots popularity came from queer youth who seemingly saw themselves reflected in the film.
As to the truthfulness of the movie’s other major element, Watts herself grew up gay in a Jehovah’s Witnesses community — though she has said You Can Live Forever is not autobiographical. Still, it ended up being close enough that Chris Stuckmann (a popular movie critic and former Jehovah’s Witness) said in his review their depiction was so accurate, seeing elements of his own life play out on-screen felt “euphoric.”
It all ends up being a delicate tightrope to walk. Balancing the development of characters (Jaime especially comes across as surprisingly complacent in the film’s opening, given everything she’s gone through), a potentially explosive relationship (which, due to time constraints, is suddenly introduced and prodded along without quite enough space) and an intended fairness to Jehovah’s Witnesses may be too much nuance to manage.
Avoiding a villain
Because while Watts said in a recent Q&A that they were “determined not to make [the faith] into an obvious villain,” it’s difficult to see this community and its beliefs as written to be anything other than the cosmic force set on keeping our star-crossed lovers apart. And though the film does an excellent job of ruminating on the place and power belief can hold in our lives, the outcomes of that belief are still frustratingly damaging to our leads.
At the same time, with certain echoes in Sarah Polley’s recent Women Talking, the politics of that belief constantly fall along gendered lines. While Jaime’s aunt Beth forlornly explains she was convinced to hold off on starting a family until the “new system” began, uncle Jean-Francois disastrously defends his faith under a self-interested desire to maintain the status quo. And while Marike continually wrestles with and interprets her faith as a deep personal responsibility to her family, her father Frank tries to convince Jaime to consider being baptized by equating it to courtship and marriage.
“Is that supposed to make her want to be baptized?” Marike asks.
“I thought it was a good analogy,” he mumbles back.
That said, there is a deftness to how each character’s motivations are handled. And after roughly 90-minutes of slowly building tension and fantastic performances by O’Driscoll and Laporte (as well as some much-needed compassion and levity from Jaime’s best friend Nathan, impressively handled by Hasani Freeman) it all leads to a knockout ending.
As a first feature for both Watts and Slutsky, it’s a film not without its faults, but with a wealth of successes — and promise of what’s to come.