Anyone eager for a sophisticated dramatization of the Gwen Shamblin story should wait until HBO Max releases its upcoming series with Sarah Paulson. However, those craving a tawdrier take on the life, death, and weight-obsessed ministry of the accused cult leader can fire up their screens now. Lifetime’s new movie Gwen Shamblin: Starving For Salvation may not be tasteful or even very artful, but it lays out the facts with gossipy zeal, like someone screen-grabbing the juiciest bits of a tabloid story and texting them to a group chat. And to be clear: That’s fine. Sometimes, lurid escapism can be just as satisfying as tony drama, and Shamblin’s story is compelling enough for both.
As a recap for those who missed HBO Max’s docuseries The Way Down: Shamblin created a wildly popular, Christian-themed diet program and eventually founded Remnant Fellowship Church in a wealthy community outside Nashville. For several years, she was a media darling, since there aren’t that many prominent evangelical women. Eventually, however, grotesque stories began leaking from the Remnant compound, including reports that she encouraged parishioners to abuse their children, publicly humiliated anyone who gained weight, and insisted church members stop communicating with those outside the fold. One couple even went to prison after killing their child by using techniques Shamblin supposedly endorsed, though she denied this was true. She almost certainly would’ve kept fighting accusations she was a cult leader, but in 2021, she died in a plane crash, along with her husband Joe Lara and several high-ranking Remnant members. No wonder Hollywood can’t get enough.
Directed by John L’Ecuyer (whose credits include the Lifetime film Mommy’s Prison Secret) and written by Gregory Small and Richard Blaney (Lifetime’s The Lizzie Borden Chronicles), Starving For Salvation hits the high points of this saga with an almost impressive disregard for nuance. In an early scene, Gwen (Jennifer Grey) declares that she wants to reach her fellow Christians with a message that the hunger for food is actually the hunger for God’s love. Moments later, she’s hosting a meeting in her garage. She’s disappointed that so few people are there, but after one brief monologue about her frustration, she’s delighted to find the next meeting is packed. That’s it. There’s no scene where she calls a few relatives and asks them to come. There’s no moment where the first attendees recruit their friends. This is a movie about a woman building an empire, so that’s just what happens. Simple as that.
There’s a similar bluntness when Gwen founds the Remnant. After deciding her church’s teachings are encouraging people to be backsliding hypocrites, she walks up to a friend and says, "I can't have these preachers messing up my program! Anyway, I gotta go. See you tomorrow!" That breezy goodbye distills the screenplay: The birth of the church is framed so matter-of-factly that it barely rises above small talk. No time is wasted on how Shamblin did it or what it meant for her, as a woman, to challenge centuries of entrenched orthodoxy. The point is that it happened. On to the next part of the story.
But even though it’s superficial, the film is still incredibly watchable. That’s partly because Shamblin’s tale is so outré that even the most slapdash iteration is captivating. After all, this is a woman who shamed her congregants when they wanted to get divorced, then decided God Himself had ordained her decision to divorce her first husband and marry Lara (Vincent Walsh), an actor who once starred in the TV movie Tarzan in Manhattan. She also thought it would be a great idea to tease her hair to unnatural heights and self-finance a reality show about herself. In both the best and worst senses, she’s unforgettable.
Really, though, the film gets most of its juice from Grey. She plays every scene with a ferocity that recalls Faye Dunaway in Mommy Dearest, making it clear that Gwen Shamblin sees each day as a challenge to be vanquished. At the same time, she pushes that drive beneath a veneer of Southern propriety that anyone who has lived below the Mason-Dixon line will recognize. In capturing the balance between the steel and the magnolia, Grey gives Gwen more of an inner life than the script ever does.
Her performance reaches some kind of apex when Gwen’s daughter Elizabeth (Jorja Cadence) loses a baby. Grey first registers shock and grief, then replaces them with a chilling approximation of motherly concern. In what passes for a consoling tone, she lets her daughter know that she may have lost the baby because she never lost the baby weight. Then she swipes at the distraught woman’s mouth with lipstick, informing Elizabeth she can’t show weakness to the rest of the church. It’s a grotesque exchange, but Grey’s work is layered enough to suggest how much effort it takes for Gwen to keep her persona (and by extension, her empire) together. If Sarah Paulson portrays this moment for HBO, then she’ll have to work hard to top the horrifying conviction that Grey conveys on basic cable.
Gwen Shamblin: Starving for Salvation premieres Saturday, February 4 at 8:00 PM on Lifetime.
Mark Blankenship is Primetimer's Reviews Editor. Tweet him at @IAmBlankenship.
TOPICS: Gwen Shamblin: Starving for Salvation, Lifetime, Gregory Small, Gwen Shamblin Lara, Jennifer Grey, John L’Ecuyer, Richard Blaney