The women of Women Talking have a lot to say. Sarah Polley’s masterful adaptation of Miriam Toews’ novel offers a space for ideas and rage to its ensemble as well as its viewership. Inspired by a true story, the drama details how a group of women in a cloistered Mennonite community debate their futures. After discovering that every single one of them has been drugged and raped by a group of men in their village, they must plot for what’s next. Do they stay in the only home they’ve ever known and continue life as usual? Do they remain but fight for change? Or do they leave, walking into the vast unknown of a world they are painfully unprepared for?
Salome (Claire Foy) is desperate to leave, regardless of the consequences. Scarface Janz (a cameo from producer Frances McDormand) recuses herself from the discussion early on, believing that their duty to their families and faith requires that they forgive their attackers without a second thought. Ona (Rooney Mara) acts as a mediator of sorts, a grounded but optimistic devil’s advocate who nonetheless knows the real stakes at play. She has been made pregnant by one of these rapes and it is her child’s future she must consider.
It is not an easy decision to make, not for any woman but especially dozens who cannot read or write and are smothered by trauma. In the barn where the women’s unofficial representatives gather to make their choice, this is as close as they’ve had to a safe space their entire lives. The men have gone to town to pay the bail of the rapists, leaving behind a moment of matriarchal bliss. They have a kind of freedom, albeit one smothered by caveats, that is rare—near unheard of to them. And then there is an unexpected intrusion from the real world.
A census taker drives through their small town, his rickety car as modern as anything most of these women have ever seen. Everyone flees into their homes, resistant to this visitor’s intentions. To draw attention, he blasts a song: “Daydream Believer” by The Monkees. It’s cute, unthreatening, an instant earworm. How could anyone be intimidated by a simple love song? It’s not intended to scare, but to entice these women to talk to the outside world, something they’re not yet ready for. Their entire debate centers on whether they can and should embrace a future they’re utterly unprepared for. It’s doubtful they even know what a homecoming queen is. Such a silly song becomes an almost unsettling jolt of reality.
In the book, the song that plays at this moment is “California Dreamin’” by The Mamas & The Papas, a lusher number that evokes a hyper-specific moment in time. Polley initially planned to use that song until her editor, Christopher Donaldson, made the suggestion of The Monkees. It was the right call. As iconic as “California Dreamin’” is, and as obvious a thematic connection it shares with the Monkees’ number, it doesn’t feel as optimistic—more melancholic than joyful. These are not women with much to feel hopeful about, not when the census taker comes. His arrival brings with it news of the men’s return and the looming deadline of their decision.
This entrance of reality is a unique one in Women Talking. While we know that this is a Mennonite community, and readers of the book will be aware that it is located somewhere in South America, no indication of these details is given to us. Those specificities remain in sight, but Polley is more intrigued by the commonalities of their experiences. One does not have to live apart from the rest of the world to be dismissed as a victim of abuse, or to see your rapists be prioritized time and time again.
The film opens with a preface that describes what will follow as “an act of female imagination.” Amid these women’s dense, often philosophical discourse, they must figure out decades of ideas about gender, family, faith and autonomy. They do this entirely divorced from the cultural and educational context that most of us take for granted. None of the women can read and they all rely on the only man they trust, gentle schoolteacher August (Ben Whishaw at high levels of Paddington-esque warmth), to take the minutes of their meetings. While they won’t be able to check his words for themselves, it matters that they leave behind a document of what happened, lest the world try to erase it once more. When they leave their homes, the strangers they encounter might not believe their plight.
The song reappears in Women Talking’s end credits. As the women embrace an unsure future—the final shot focuses on Ona’s happy and wriggling newborn daughter, the ultimate reason to walk forward into the unknown. As you leave the theater, “Daydream Believer” begins once more, and you get it. You understand that the unknown is freedom, that the chance to dream comes with immense power for these women. Now, there is optimism. The sight of that one child is enough to spark it all, even for us, after we’ve just taken in close to two hours of difficult conversations and shades of brutality. It brings a leap to your step as you walk out, one you hope that others will be able to share.
Kayleigh Donaldson is a critic and pop culture writer for Pajiba.com. Her work can also be found on IGN, Slashfilm, Uproxx, Little White Lies, Vulture, Roger Ebert, and other publications. She lives in Dundee.