When eight-year-old Sara (Lily LaTorre) meets a girl named Amy (Julia Savage) on the side of a rural Australian road in the first full scene of The Clearing, Sara knows exactly who she is. She even spells her name out, lest her new acquaintance get it wrong: S-A-R-A. By the episode’s end, she’ll be fighting to keep that identity. While talking to Amy, Sara’s is pulled into an unremarkable white van driven by an older boy who shares Amy’s long, flowing peroxide-blonde hair. They’re both dead ringers for the spooky kids from Village of the Damned, as are all the other children at the compound where Sara is taken against her will. But the look has a less-than-extraterrestrial origin. Like the uniforms worn by all the residents of Sara’s new home, the hair is part of the de rigueur look of a group known as the Kindred. Soon Sara’s hair will look the same and she’ll have a new name to go with it: Asha.
Adapted from the 2019 novel In the Clearing by J.P. Pomare, this eight-part miniseries draws on the real-life Australian cult known as The Family, a well-funded organization led by Anne Hamilton-Byrne, a yoga teacher-turned-spiritualist whose compound was raided in 1987, its escapees telling stories of abuse, mind control, and initiation rites involving massive doses of LSD, all under the direction of Hamilton-Byrne, who claimed to be their mother (which she was able to do in part because of Australia’s then lax adoption laws). Each episode of The Clearing opens with a disclaimer that it’s a work of fiction inspired by fact, but the details of cult life seen in the three episodes given to critics, however chilling, don’t exaggerate the claims of the cult’s survivors.
The series is composed of two strands. In the first, Amy is tasked with getting Asha familiarized with life with the Kindred, in spite of her own growing doubts about the place and Asha’s unyielding resistance to accepting her new identity — even after a phone conversation with the group’s leader, Adrienne (Miranda Otto), who sweetly talks of herself as “Asha’s” mother and tells her she’s been waiting for her. In the second, a single mother named Freya (Teresa Palmer) raises her son while growing increasingly anxious thanks to news reports of a missing child and the white van that seems to be following them wherever they go.
By the first episode’s final scene, the series has made the connections between the strands clear (information withheld by the novel to a later point). The revelation upends a lot of assumptions, particularly about Freya, casting a character who seems at first like a struggling mother trying to do her best in a different light. Subsequent episodes will complicate this depiction even further, while delving deeper into the workings of the Kindred. That it’s even creepier than it first appears isn’t exactly a spoiler; the series does not hold back in depicting the awfulness of the Kindred kids’ existence or the sadism of the abuse used to keep them in line.
Co-creators Elise McCredie and Matt Cameron keep to an unhurried pace, but what the series gains in atmosphere it loses in urgency. At its best, The Clearing adopts a dreamlike tone, one locked into the false reality created by Adrienne and her followers. But sometimes the dreaminess just feels languid. In some stretches it feels like there’s nothing pushing the story forward between eruptions of drama, like a visit from the police that sends the children of the Kindred into hiding for fear of the “blue devils” who might take them away.
A strong cast helps balance out that tendency, however. Otto’s appropriately creepy as Adrienne, conveying the cult leader’s fearsome rage but also the charm that allows her to win the support of wealthy patrons. Palmer’s especially good as Freya, making the character feel consistent even as new details about her emerge. (The always welcome Guy Pearce is also on hand as a key Kindred figure.) Though at times these early episodes play like a procedural stretched across more episodes than necessary, the cast’s work and the fascinating, repulsive story that inspired the series make it compelling enough to suggest it will be worth pushing through the rest of the series. Just don’t expect, given how closely these first episodes stick to the facts of the case, what’s to come to be any less uncomfortable.