CHARLIE SAYS is another of indie filmmaker Mary Harron’s (American Psycho, I Shot Andy Warhol, etc.) smartly calibrated brave dives into creepy material involving off the grid, often real-life, bad characters. Way off and very bad here are subjects Charlie Manson and his young female accomplices who were the most notorious members of America’s most horrific, fucked-up “family.”

The IFC Films release focuses on three women — Leslie Van Houten (Hannah Murray), Patricia Krenwinkel (Sosie Bacon), and Susan Atkins (Marianne Rendón) — and Manson himself (Matt Smith), in addition to UC/Santa Cruz grad psychologist Karlene Faith (Merritt Wever), who interviews the imprisoned Death Row “Charlie’s Girls.” Shifting among Faith’s empathetic probing, the sloppy hippie free for all life at Manson’s Spahn ranch (his brainwashing of the “family,” the crazy rituals like dump diving, the orgies, etc.) and the crimes themselves (the LaBianca/Sharon Tate slaughters, conveyed with restraint), the film evokes the dark side of the late 60s youth movement and socio-cultural revolution. Manson's proclamation of “Love” ober alles and dictate that “the new rule is no rules” rule the family’s wasteful sex/drugs/rock ’n’ roll days and nights. An anecdote involving record producer Terry Melcher’s (Brian Adrian) visit to the ranch (wannabe rock star Manson hoped to sign with him) and Melcher pal/Beach Boy Dennis Wilson’s presence at Spahn indicate the proximity of celebrity that tempted but wholly eluded Manson...until the murders. As for psychologist Faith, her probing doesn’t reveal much beyond the stupidity, cult susceptibility and possible psychoses of her airhead subjects.   

As an eerily convincing Manson, Brit Matt Smith, who really got on radar an impeccable Prince Phillip in The Crown, stretched amazingly further with his portrayal of controversial Queens, NY-born homoerotic photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Where could the next stretch be?

Working with material that could have easily been sensationalized or exploited (her previous works were similarly loaded), Mary Harron manages to infuse dignity into a work whose story and certainly toxic characters don’t deserve any.

Murray, Bacon and Rendón who play the wacko cult’s smitten kittens are all dumbly convincing, if frustratingly opaque regarding their capacity to go so extreme.

As the student psychologist querying the perps, Wever, who dramatically had more to play with, is especially noteworthy in a performance glowing with earnestness and deep caring.

Never bellowing about how Charlie’s “girls” go so gaga over him, Charlie Says coolly evokes the power of monsters like Manson and Hitler and the kind of women they and their ilk continue to attract today and a similar hold that evangelicalism has cross gender. Much credit also goes to screenwriter Guinevere Turner for such subtlety.