Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Movie Review: Meet the Mormons

I am hard on Mormon art.

Now, I don't mean I'm hard on the Bible or Book of Mormon, because I'm very much not. Paintings and sculptures aren't my area, so I enjoy them as much as the next person. But literature and film, created by Mormons, have to work to impress me. Too often I'm disappointed by flat characters, shallow plots, bad writing, and overly didactic messages that are really off-putting.

This may sound strange, as I am Mormon (LDS) and a writer. But I don't think belonging to any demographic allows bad writing. When I see bad writing by a member of my faith, I face-palm because I feel like it gives the rest of us (LDS artists) a bad name. Like we rely on preachy messages to gain readers rather than plot and character and theme and good use of our medium.

That said, I really liked Meet the Mormons.

I'm not a documentary person. Normally, I'd rather see an animated fantasy or a comic-action adventure. Maybe a good rom-com when I'm in the right mood. I went to see the movie mostly because my bishop's wife was a researcher for the film, after the film the director/writer and head of production were going to Q and A (we had a special showing), and because everyone else was doing it. I was sure I'd see it eventually. But I'm hard on Mormon art.

Again, I'm not a documentary person. I lack the knowledge to properly critique the film. But I am a storyteller who knows what she likes, and I'm a teacher of rhetoric. So I can give my opinion in the way I know best.

First, some facts. The film is the first made by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. All net proceeds go to the American Red Cross, so the Church is turning no profit on the film. The documentary shows the lives of six Latter-day Saints. Here, why not watch the trailer to get a better idea of the film:

The thing that first impressed me about the movie was its lack of rhetoric. Yes, there is rhetoric. Everything anyone does or says is rhetoric, and a movie like this meant to to introduce a faith to the world will have rhetoric. But it's not preachy. It's not trying to convince others of the truth of our faith. At all. I searched for the message and it isn't there. The film calls for everyone to meet on common ground in harmony. The other message, implied through the whole documentary, is this: This is who the Mormons are, in real life. Not what pop culture calls us, not what misconceptions paint us as. But who we are.

The director, Blair Treu, said that the Church asked him to make a movie that was as authentic as possible. Not to preach or show a glowing, white-washed image of what we want to be, but just reveal what is already there in homes and churches all over the world. As a member of the LDS Church, I can say that they did that. The people shown are authentic in how they live, act, and speak as faithful members.

As a lover of adventure films, I tend to find documentaries slow. And this one was, in terms of action, drama, and angst. Yet I felt like the time sped by. I found myself very interested in the lives of the people shown, even "The Bishop" who lives a rather average life. I liked the people the more I watched. I was fascinated by their lives, even the humble parts. I think this is because the people featured, and their families (who were not all LDS, by the way), were such good people. Like any good work of fiction, I related with them, cared about them. These were people whose faith in Jesus Christ had become incorporated into every aspect of their lives, and they were people you wanted to meet. People you could befriend and believe that they would love you unconditionally.

Some may think that this is the rhetoric of the film, and sure, it may be. But at the same time, these six people and their families are living their faith, which is what all faithful LDS members try to do. So they're as authentic as you can get as examples of Mormons. I never got the sense that anyone was pretending to be someone they weren't. They weren't perfect, just trying to be.

Someone wiser than me in the ways of film should review the editing. I can't do that. I can only focus on elements of storytelling. Characterization, if I can call it that, was excellent. And you know how I feel about characters. I also think the movie succeeded in its endeavor to introduce the world to the Mormons. That is who we are. If anyone has any questions in that field, they will be answered explicitly or implicitly by the film.

Long post, so last note: One of the stories featured was that of Gail Halverson, the Candy Bomber. Everyone should know this story. If you don't, here's the Wikipedia article. But below, for your pleasure, is Tom Brokaw at the Mormon Tabernacle Choir Christmas Concert two years ago, telling the story. It's lovely.

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