Isn't that title a doozy? Anyway, this movie got famous on the independent circuit for being the 'holy shit, that person can ACT!' vehicle for Elizabeth Olsen (the fact that it's her first movie made it all the more impressive). And while her performance is jaw droppingly impressive, to assume that's all it is would be to sell the movie intensely short.
The plot is concerned with Martha, a woman who has spent the last few...years I think, in a cult in upstate New York and has just gotten the will to escape. She begins living with her sister, but it becomes increasingly clear that her experiences with the cult have left her warped and she begins to be increasingly odd and paranoid. The title refers to her different names (her real name is Martha, Marcy May is the name the cult leader assigns her, and Marlene is the name all the women on the compound answer the phone with). Her experiences with the cult are revealed piecemeal through flashbacks played in chronological order.
Which, incidentally, leads me to one of the films oddest triumphs, in a very wonky (but effective) bit of pacing. The way the flashbacks work, the cult initially just looks like a slightly odd hippy commune, like more relaxed Amish. It seems to be gently introducing us to the weirdness, with some subtle dialogue and hints of brainwashing. Then, in one scene we get all at once how sick and twisted the cult is, which would be a flaw if it didn't so perfectly mirror Martha's actual experiences with the cult. All of this is held together with a great screenplay and a subtly incredible soundtrack.
As I said, Elizabeth Olsen is getting all the attention for her incredible performance, and it's well deserved. She is alternately playing a character so desperate for affection and so brainwashed by the cult, that she is willing to overlook, and even participate in, the horrors going on around her to remain at the compound (in the flashbacks) and playing a woman so damaged by her experiences that you can't even tell where the damage ends and where the woman she was begins (in the modern day segments). This is an incredibly tricky piece of acting, and she pulls it off like a champ. Of equal importance is John Hawkes (who some of you might remember from the also excellent Winters Bone) as the cult leader. I don't want to tell you too much about it, but trust me he does incredibly (as do all the other cult members).
If I had to come up with a complaint, and I do, it'd be about Martha's sister and her husband. Both of them are fine as characters and well acted, but the movie's structure requires they act like idiots, ignoring all the symptoms of Martha's damage to keep the plot running. But that minor nitpick doesn't stop the movie from being an excellent film and, besides the great acting, one of the best films about a cult from the inside ever made. Highly recommended.
Elessar is a 22 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he knew the cultists were brainwashed when they didn't insult the leader for his awful singing.