Abby Olcese (@abbyolcese) has been many things — a campus ministry leader at the University of Kansas, an English teacher in Prague, and an advertising assistant at Sojourners. These days, she’s a freelance writer based in Kansas.

Raised on a diet of Narnia, Bob Dylan records and Terry Gilliam movies, Abby is drawn to the weird, the nerdy, and the profoundly artsy corners of popular culture. She loves sharing this knowledge with others by writing about interesting new releases as well as lesser-known gems.

Abby is also passionate about the intersection of faith, social responsibility, and culture. She believes in the power of art to spark important conversations, inspire social change, and help people to better understand life in the kingdom of God.

When she’s not watching movies or writing things down, you can usually find Abby reading comic books or perusing the selection at her local record store.

Posts By This Author

‘One Life’ Shows How Small Acts Can Make a Life-Saving Difference

by Abby Olcese 05-08-2024
What is any ocean but a multitude of drops?
The picture shows an old white man with glasses wearing a suit looking at something, semi-puzzled or surprised. There are people behind him.

Anthony Hopkins in One Life 

ONE OF MY favorite literary quotes comes from David Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas. When Adam Ewing, a 19th-century notary from California, decides to become an abolitionist and protest the transatlantic slave trade, he imagines his father-in-law declaring that Ewing is condemning himself to a meaningless life that will amount to nothing more than a drop in the ocean. Ewing responds, “Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?”

I thought about that quote while watching One Life, a 2023 film based on the real life ofNicholas Winton, a British stockbroker who, in the year before World War II, rescuedmore than 600 Jewish refugee children in Prague by relocating them to England in what came to be called the Czech Kindertransport. Winton’s determination was indeed amazing, but as the drama shows, his efforts depended on many people who did what they could to help — many drops in an ocean of good.

‘God & Country’ Documents the Christian Nationalist Takeover of Evangelicalism

by Abby Olcese 02-15-2024

A scene from 'God & Country,' Oscilloscope Laboratories

The new documentary God & Country, inspired by Katherine Stewart’s book The Power Worshippers, fortunately escapes most of the major pitfalls of political documentaries as it addresses the rise of Christian nationalism.

How to Ignore the Screams of Your Neighbors

by Abby Olcese 02-09-2024
In ‘The Zone of Interest,’ a Nazi commandant and his family live a seemingly normal life — next door to Auschwitz.
The image shows a Nazi commandant smoking in his yard, and the photo was taken through bars on a fence. The man wears a white button up with a black tie.

From The Zone of Interest

JONATHAN GLAZER’S FILMS aren’t really stories; they’re experiences. His work is moody and image-driven. Plot matters less than concept, which often makes his work feel like it should be viewed in an art museum rather than in a theater. This is certainly true of his latest, The Zone of Interest, a loose adaptation of a novel by Martin Amis.

Glazer’s film follows a Nazi commandant and his family who live next door to Auschwitz. Theirs is a disturbingly wholesome life — a study in what philosopher Hannah Arendt called the “banality of evil,” the bureaucratic just-following-orders mentality that allows evil to proliferate. As such, it’s also a timely film to consider in the context of rising authoritarianism around the world.

Martyrdom or Foolish Fantasy?

by Abby Olcese 12-01-2023
John Allen Chau wanted to bring the gospel to North Sentinel Island. The documentary “The Mission” tells the story of his death and raises questions about cross-cultural evangelism.
The illustration shows the back of a shirtless man on a kayak, holding a large fish over his head. People are walking towards him from the island, with weapons.

From The Mission

IN 2018, 26-year-old American missionary John Allen Chau journeyed to the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean. He wanted to minister to the Sentinelese, the Indigenous residents of North Sentinel Island and one of the last population groups on the planet to have avoided modernization by the outside world. Chau, an Oral Roberts University graduate who grew up steeped in conservative evangelical culture, felt called to bring the gospel to unreached people.

The mission did not go as planned. Chau was quickly killed by the Sentinelese, who saw him as a threat. Chau’s death caused a public reevaluation of cross-cultural missions, one explored in the documentary The Mission. The film tells Chau’s story through his diary excerpts, his father Patrick’s account of Chau’s life, and expert interviews.

Directors Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss don’t cast judgment; instead, they add context and ask questions. Was Chau’s death martyrdom, or the result of a foolish fantasy? Does teaching God’s word to isolated peoples help them, or open them to exploitation, colonization, and eradication?

The Cautionary Tale of the Father of the Atomic Bomb

by Abby Olcese 09-27-2023
‘Oppenheimer' confronts us with moral questions about irreversible consequences.
A photo shows a white man wearing a suit and a bowler hat looking into the camera seriously

From Oppenheimer 

IN CHRISTOPHER NOLAN'S film Oppenheimer, J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) gives a speech to his assembled Manhattan Project team in Los Alamos, N.M., shortly after the U.S. drops an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, in early August of 1945. In a small auditorium in this town built for the sole purpose of developing the bomb, Oppenheimer looks over a crowd of ecstatic scientists and their families, who greet him with cheers. Some of them are waving American flags.

As Oppenheimer starts praising the team and what their great achievement means for the U.S., we’re given a window into his internal torment: The background starts to blur and vibrate. We hear a child’s scream. Oppenheimer sees a woman’s face start to flake away. Looking down, a charred human body clings to his leg. Oppenheimer sweats. He swallows. He continues speaking, but it’s clear he’s dissociated from the speech he’s written.

What Happens to Young Women Stifled by Patriarchy?

by Abby Olcese 07-10-2023
‘The Starling Girl’ explores a young woman's power amid repression.
A young white teenage girl named Jem Starling (played by actress Eliza Scanlen) is sitting on the edge of a bed. Here elbows rest on the quilt blanket with her hands folded in prayer as she looks beyond the frame toward an unseen ceiling.

From The Starling Girl

THE WORD “SELFISH” is used many times throughout writer-director Laurel Parmet’s coming-of-age film The Starling Girl. Seventeen-year-old Jem Starling (Eliza Scanlen) hears it most often from her parents. Her father (Jimmi Simpson) uses the word to describe the period of his life before he got saved and gave up drinking. Her mother (Wrenn Schmidt) chides Jem for selfishness when she isn’t performing her duties at home. And at church, congregants direct the insult at Jem whenever her performance in the worship dance troupe pulls attention toward herself and away from God.

This understanding of “selfishness” dismisses the community members’ unmet needs. Jem, like most teenagers, is starting to consider what kind of person she’ll become. However, the only guidance she’s getting is from her fundamentalist church, which advises her to give up her dreams, fear her changing body, and let her church decide who she’ll marry. It’s no wonder that Jem’s thoughts turn increasingly to the only person who gives her positive, albeit problematic, attention: the youth leader, Owen Taylor (Lewis Pullman), the married son of her church’s pastor.

The Starling Girl is an empathetic portrait of the vulnerability and power of young women. It shows what can happen when the structures around them — family, church, patriarchy — limit that power and stifle their desires and dreams. This leads Jem to a sexual relationship with the similarly frustrated Owen, who’s drawn to Jem’s seemingly boundless potential.

Facing Our Ghosts of Unresolved Grief

by Abby Olcese 04-26-2023
‘The Eternal Daughter’ shows us how we can better carry unwelcome burdens.
Julie from 'The Eternal Daughter' (Tilda Swinton) is seen from a side profile staring out a window, where you can see her image reflecting in the glass and a view of a forest in the background.

From The Eternal Daughter

IN HER POEM “Flare,” Mary Oliver writes about grief and the relationship between memory and reality, especially when it comes to parents. She writes: “My mother / was the blue wisteria, / my mother / was the mossy stream out behind the house, / my mother, alas, alas, / did not always love her life, / heavier than iron it was / as she carried it in her arms, from room to room.”

Our relationships with parents are shaped by our memories, what parents tell us about their lives, and what we come to understand about them. The Bible tells us to honor our father and mother, but we can never do that perfectly because we never fully know them. This becomes more poignant when those who raised us are no longer around.

Like Oliver’s poem, Joanna Hogg’s The Eternal Daughter (available on video on demand) captures this liminal, lonely feeling in an intensely personal way. Hogg’s semi-autobiographical film is a ghost story about memory, family, and the pull between the stories we know, the ones we don’t, and unresolved ways they differ.

Avoiding Capture in a Web of Misogyny

by Abby Olcese 02-24-2023
The Spider Killings happened more than 20 years ago, but the attitudes that enabled those murders remain frighteningly prevalent.
A photo of actress Zar Amir Ebrahimi as fictional journalist Arezoo Ramimi in the film 'Holy Spider.' She is cast against a red flag in the background and staring just off camera at something.

From Holy Spider

THE OPENING SCENE of Holy Spider is brutal. We see a woman — a sex worker — leave her child at home to go to work. Walking through Iran’s holy city of Mashhad, she stops at a public restroom to adjust her headscarf and apply bold lipstick. She goes on her first call of the night and does some opium. As she prepares to go home, a man approaches on a motorcycle. He offers her money. She joins him. Shortly after arriving at their destination, he strangles her.

Writer-director Ali Abbasi’s Holy Spider is a fictionalized account of Saeed Hanaei, known as the Spider Killer, who targeted female sex workers in Mashhad from 2000 to 2001. The film, which premiered at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival, examines the killer’s life and the process of capturing him, led by (fictionalized) female journalist Arezoo Rahimi (Zar Amir Ebrahimi).

‘The Devil Conspiracy’ Is Boring as Hell

by Abby Olcese 01-24-2023
A human-like figure with angel wings rears it's head toward the sky.

A scene from 'The Devil Conspiracy.'

Here’s the setup: A shadowy biotech conglomerate and a cabal of satanists (gasp!) are planning to release Lucifer from hell by… wait for it… stealing the linen cloth used to cover Christ’s body during his entombment, using it to clone Christ’s DNA, and then implanting it into a surrogate mother, allowing Lucifer to possess the fetus. The Devil Conspiracy is like a mix of Rosemary’s Baby, Demon Seed, and the surrogacy mix-up romcom The Switch.

Spirituality of the Multiverse

by Abby Olcese 11-21-2022
‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’ taps into relatable feelings about the paths not taken.
 Actress Michelle Yeoh portrays Evelyn Wong, who is shown being split between two dimensional realities in the film 'Everything Everywhere All at Once.'

From Everything Everywhere All at Once.

“THE SPIRITUAL LIFE, in other words, is not achieved by denying one part of life for the sake of another. The spiritual life is achieved only by listening to all of life and learning to respond to each of its dimensions wholly and with integrity.”

In this quote from Wisdom Distilled From the Daily: Living the Rule of St. Benedict Today, Joan Chittister writes about living a spiritually active existence that fully engages with our daily reality. She couldn’t have known it at the time, but Chittister might as well have been describing one of the biggest pop culture trends of the last few years: the multiverse.

The concept of multiple worlds and multiple versions of ourselves (some of whom live the life we secretly wish we had) has become ubiquitous across screens, from movies like Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and Spider-Man: No Way Home to TV shows like Rick and Morty and Doctor Who. Perhaps the example of multiverse storytelling to most successfully plumb emotional possibilities so far — listening to all of life and responding to its dimensions with integrity — is also one of 2022’s most surprising hits: the indie film Everything Everywhere All at Once.

Capitalism Isn't Much Better than the Criminal World

by Abby Olcese 09-29-2022
"Emily the Criminal" is the millennial version of classic gangster noir — and an indictment of our exploitative economy.
A white woman with dark brown hair directly faces the camera but looks slightly right; she wears a dark blue jacket and there is an industrial background behind her.

From Emily the Criminal

EMILY (AUBREY PLAZA) is caught in a vicious catch-22. She’s in deep student debt, but a criminal infraction keeps her from getting a job to pay down her balance. Emily’s stuck working catering gigs, and what little money she can set aside goes to her loan interest, practically ensuring she’ll never be able to get her head above water.

When a co-worker offers her a chance to make some extra cash, Emily jumps at the opportunity. It may be highly illegal, but what other choice does she have?

Writer/director John Patton Ford’s Emily the Criminal is a millennial version of classic gangster noir, with Plaza’s Emily drawn deeper into a criminal underworld where fast payout overrules ethics. Ford’s film never glamorizes Emily’s experiences, instead showing us a desperate person fed up with a world that gives her virtually no other choice but to break the law to survive.

Nathan Fielder’s Absurdly Profound Exploration of Forgiveness

by Abby Olcese 08-29-2022

Nathan Fielder in ‘The Rehearsal,’ HBO 

As it turns out, the person who needed The Rehearsal most was Fielder himself. His interaction with Angela in the finale reveals that the whole enterprise is actually an exploration of the inevitable pain humans cause others, even when we’re not trying to, and our need for grace and self-forgiveness.

Learning to Live with "Men"

by Abby Olcese 06-29-2022
Right now, our lives seem to be all about sitting with painful, tangled questions. It makes sense that our art should be, too.
A white woman who has closed eyes bites into an apple

From Men

WHEN REVIEWING FILMS, especially from a faith-based angle, it’s natural to look for concrete messages. Most mainstream films tell three-act stories, and those typically include a tidy resolution that presents a perspective or moral. But film is also an art form, and great art is more interested in creating atmosphere and asking questions than providing answers—not unlike faith, which teaches us to pose unanswerable questions and to sit with uncertainty.

For those who like tidy narratives, filmmaker Alex Garland’s work can be frustrating. Garland’s films are concerned with big concepts, many related to the characters’ desire for control at the expense of their humanity and others’ lives. However, his films rarely answer the questions they pose, leaving room for viewer interpretation. For audiences willing to engage with art that lives in an in-between place, this can be a thrilling, sometimes visceral, experience.

Garland’s latest film, Men, is his most tonally upsetting and his most abstruse. In it, Harper (Jessie Buckley) rents a country manor as a space to emotionally recover from the violent death—a possible suicide—of her husband, James (Paapa Essiedu). Her idyllic solitude is disrupted by a series of men (all played by Rory Kinnear) who threaten her emotionally, psychologically, and physically. The men appear in various forms, including a patronizing older man, a vulgar child, a manipulative vicar, a macho policeman, and a naked, silent stalker.

The concept itself is clear; Men is about the act of male intrusion on the lives of women. But it’s the way the movie communicates the theme that creates questions Garland would rather ask than answer.

Embracing the Animal Within

by Abby Olcese 05-09-2022
"Turning Red's" fuzzy transfiguration is a relatable reminder that everyone's lives contain emotional (and sometimes embarrassing) balancing acts.
Illustration of a terrified, large red panda towering over surprised humans

From Turning Red

MEILIN LEE, the 13-year-old hero of Pixar’s Turning Red, has a lot on her shoulders. She’s maintaining perfect grades alongside responsibilities helping her mom, Ming (Sandra Oh), run Toronto’s oldest Chinese temple. She’s torn between her identities as a dutiful daughter and a socially active teenager. Oh, and she transforms into a giant red panda in times of strong emotion.

That last issue, it turns out, is genetic. Because of a deal made by an ancestor, the women of Meilin’s family all poof into red pandas when they’re angry, sad, or excited, a trait that emerges during puberty. The panda spirit can be contained through a ritual. Ming is desperate to keep her daughter’s red panda spirit under control. Meilin, however, isn’t sure she wants it subdued.

Directed and co-written by Chinese Canadian animator Domee Shi, Turning Red’s fuzzy transfiguration is a metaphor for real-life stressors.

‘The Worst Person in the World,’ Despite Its Title, Never Judges

by Abby Olcese 03-01-2022
Joachim Trier’s film explores the subtle changes of the soul and the experiences that define us all.
A white man wearing a suit blows smoke into the mouth of a young white woman

From The Worst Person in the World

IN A 2001 lecture titled “Devotional Cinema,” filmmaker and film editor Nathaniel Dorsky broadly described devotional practice as “the interruption that allows us to experience what is hidden and to accept with our hearts our given situation.” Dorsky connected this definition to the experience of watching a movie, claiming, “It is alive as a devotional form,” allowing viewers to uncover truths about themselves and the world by watching someone else’s story. A movie doesn’t have to be experimental art, a heavy drama, or a religious epic to be a devotional experience. Often, the most profound stories are about the subtle changes of the soul over time and the experiences and relationships that define a person. We relate to them because, like a devotional practice, they help us reflect on our own lives and consider how we live in relation to others.

Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World is one such film, following its protagonist, Julie (Renate Reinsve), from her late 20s to her early 30s. Trier places Julie as the main character of her own story, narrated to us as she lives it, changing careers, falling in love, breaking up, experiencing loss, and becoming wiser and more comfortable with herself as a result.

Survivors of Catholic Clergy Abuse Turn to Acting to Process Trauma

by Abby Olcese 12-29-2021
Robert Greene's 'Procession' demonstrates the restorative potential of creative expression.
A young boy wearing a white surplice stands before a wall of stained glass

From Procession

IN WHISTLING IN the Dark: A Doubter’s Dictionary, Frederick Buechner writes of the power of art, “If we are to love our neighbors, before doing anything else we must see our neighbors. With our imagination as well as our eyes ... like artists, we must see not just their faces but the life behind and within their faces.” All art can be a sacred space to share an artist’s experiences and needs. At its very best, it can generate empathy and healing.

In the new Netflix documentary Procession, filmmaker Robert Greene works with adult survivors of sexual abuse by Catholic priests, as well as trauma-trained advocates and therapists. The six men featured in the film collaboratively create dramatic scenes to process physical, emotional, and spiritual traumas. Their journey highlights the value of supportive communities, and the restorative potential of creative expression.

Though directed by Greene, Procession is credited as “a film by” everyone involved. Top billing goes to the men whose stories the film highlights: Joe Eldred, Mike Foreman, Ed Gavagan, Dan Laurine, Michael Sandridge, and Tom Viviano. While Greene may be the one behind the camera, ownership of the film belongs to the subjects.

Home to Our Hallowed Memories

by Abby Olcese 10-19-2021
Grief, relationship, and sacred space in Céline Sciamma’s 'Petite Maman​​​​​​​.' 
Two similar-looking small girls carry a raft together through a woody path

From Petite Maman

OVER THE LAST year we’ve had to reconsider our definition of what makes a “sacred space.” When churches and temples closed due to the pandemic, our homes became places of worship for many of us.

This cemented what’s always been true: Sacred space is a fluid thing. It can be a place of deep personal meaning or shared memories with people we care about. A sacred space doesn’t even need to be a physical location. It could also be the spiritual space created whenever we’re with those we love or remember people we’ve lost.

Céline Sciamma’s tender film Petite Maman speaks to this. A little girl, Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) and her mother, Marion (Nina Meurisse), grieve the death of Marion’s mother and clean out Marion’s childhood home. Sciamma’s movie becomes a meditation on everyday sacred spaces, including those that can exist within mother-daughter relationships.

‘Midnight Mass’ Shows the Horrors of Co-Opted Faith

by Abby Olcese 10-07-2021

Father Paul in 'Midnight Mass' / Courtesy of Netflix

Midnight Mass is the latest from horror filmmaker Mike Flanagan (creator of The Haunting of Hill House and The Haunting of Bly Manor), who excels in slow-creeping, character-based horror. It’s also a project through which Flanagan, a former Catholic, processes his feelings about scripture, religion, and the church. As an artistic representation of someone deconstructing their faith, Midnight Mass employs horror tropes to explore the ways religion responds to pain, both in ways that heal and ways that destroy.

Jessica Chastain Has Wanted to Portray Tammy Faye for Years

by Abby Olcese 09-17-2021

Jessica Chastain in The Eyes of Tammy Faye, Searchlight Pictures

A biopic about Tammy Faye Messner, better known as Tammy Faye Bakker, is ripe for caricature. That face, covered with a rainbow of lipstick, eyeliner, and mascara. That voice, with its exaggerated Upper Midwest accent. Those televangelism broadcasts, where puppet shows and hymns were followed by direct pleas for money from Tammy Faye and her first husband, Jim Bakker. She’s an easy figure to ridicule. But The Eyes of Tammy Faye, a new biopic that shares its name with Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato’s 2000 documentary, blessedly avoids this trap.

Crossing Cultural and Religious Barriers in ‘We Are Lady Parts'

by Abby Olcese 07-20-2021
Faith takes many forms.
A scene from 'We Are Lady Parts' with a group of women in hijabs.

From We Are Lady Parts

NO MATTER YOUR racial, ethnic, spiritual, or geographic background, or where you fall on the gender spectrum, a vital part of adulthood is determining your identity—particularly in relationship to the community you grew up in. At some point, we all diverge from others’ opinions of us. Hopefully, we also find people who help us in our quest to define ourselves.

The Peacock series We Are Lady Parts, about an all-female, Muslim punk band, shows a group of characters who support each other on their individual journeys of identity, with their religion and larger community playing central roles. The series, created and written by Nida Manzoor, presents a diverse look at modern-day Muslim womanhood. Its themes also carry over into the broader experience of maturing alongside your faith, and what happens when your expression of belief conflicts with cultural expectations.

Lady Parts is fronted by the fierce feminist Saira (Sarah Kameela Impey). Earthy mom Bisma (Faith Omole) plays bass, and aggressive Ayesha (Juliette Motamed) is on drums. Momtaz (Lucie Shorthouse), often shown vaping through her niqab, is their manager. Saira decides the band needs a lead guitarist, eventually selecting Amina (Anjana Vasan), a painfully shy, tightly wound Ph.D. student.