The title of Hulu limited series The Clearing doesn’t refer to a place but rather a ritual, one that cult leader Adrienne Beaufort (Miranda Otto) requires of all her followers. The name evokes Scientology, but The Clearing is inspired by a different religious movement, the Australian cult known as The Family. Author J.P. Pomare used the real-life story of The Family as the inspiration for his 2019 novel In the Clearing, but as a disclaimer at the beginning of each episode notes, both the novel and its TV adaptation are entirely fictional.
There are still plenty of chilling details lifted directly from the true story of The Family, and The Clearing can illustrate them in a way that isn’t possible on the page. It’s particularly striking to see the way that Adrienne has molded her adopted children to resemble herself, with unnatural platinum blond hair that makes them look like the kids from horror classic Village of the Damned. Adrienne has amassed these children thanks to questionably legal adoption practices, aided by followers who targeted vulnerable young mothers-to-be and forged official documents.
As the first episode of The Clearing begins, members of Adrienne’s cult — known here as the Kindred — have decided to expand their ranks in a new way, kidnapping a young girl and forcing her to become one of Adrienne’s “children.” That’s the first of many fictional detours that the series takes, and the fate of the girl that they rename Asha (Lily LaTorre) hangs over The Clearing’s dual storylines in two time periods, decades apart.
Sometime in the 1980s, Adrienne is at the height of her powers over the Kindred, aided by her partner Dr. Bryce Latham (Guy Pearce). Asha’s arrival disrupts the group’s focus, though, and it’s especially disturbing for 13-year-old Amy (Julia Savage), who’s beginning to rebel against some of the strict rules from her “mother.” The Kindred are also being investigated by a local police detective (Hazem Shammas) who’s determined to expose their criminal behavior.
More than two decades later, single mother Freya Heywood (Teresa Palmer) is disturbed by reports of a young girl going missing in her community, with details that seems similar to Asha’s abduction. It’s not hard to guess the connection between Freya and Amy, and series creators Matt Cameron and Elise McCredie reveal the truth much sooner than Pomare does in the novel. There are plenty of other changes from page to screen, but The Clearing still captures the eerie sense of disquiet and distrust that comes from a lifetime under the thumb of a charismatic megalomaniac like Adrienne.
Otto is brilliantly disturbing as Adrienne, who can turn from warm and maternal to vicious and vindictive within a split second, yet always commands complete devotion and obedience from her followers. Even in the modern-day storyline, after much of her organization has been disbanded, she remains powerful behind the scenes, continuing to manipulate people who are theoretically no longer beholden to her. Otto’s performance keeps The Clearing captivating even when some of the plot elements are wispy or obtuse.
Palmer is also strong as the fiercely protective but volatile Freya, whose concern for her young son Billy (Flynn Wandin) is informed as much by PTSD as by parental love. The Clearing’s plot moves slowly, and the thriller aspects often take a backseat to the exploration of personal trauma, but it’s tense and suspenseful even when just dealing with characters processing their emotions. Working from Pomare’s novel, Cameron and McCredie combine TV’s current true-crime fascination with a more existential meditation on family and identity.
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Amy has only ever known what life is like in the Clearing, with her brothers and sisters–until a newcomer, a younger girl, joins the “family” and offers a glimpse of the outside world. Freya is living an isolated life with her son and their dog, going to great lengths to keep contact with the outside world like an “everyday mum” while being utterly terrified by it. When a news breaks of a missing girl–a child the same age as Freya’s son, Billy–Amy and Freya’s stories intertwine, and the secrets of the past will crawl inexorably into the present.
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Josh Bell is a freelance writer and movie/TV critic based in Las Vegas. He’s the former film editor of Las Vegas Weekly and the former TV comedies guide for About.com. He has written about movies, TV, and pop culture for Vulture, Polygon, CBR, Inverse, Crooked Marquee, and more. With comedian Jason Harris, he co-hosts the podcast Awesome Movie Year.