By Zachary Collier
Last Tuesday night, I went to see Meet the Mormons, a film produced by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It is the first time the Church has ever released a film in theaters like this, making it a pretty grand undertaking. In 100 of its 315 locations, the film sold out several showings (presumably to mostly Mormon audiences), and the Mormon Newsroom reports that the film made it into the top ten nationwide in total box office sales. Upon closer examination, you will find that it actually holds the 11 spot behind Nic Cage’s flop, Left Behind, but that’s still pretty good considering the film grossed $2,509,663 in only 317 theaters, when Left Behind grossed only $300,000 more with 1,500 more theaters showing it. Plus it did it playing down a day. The movie only made $60,000 on Sunday – presumably from non-Mormons. This little movie is doing well.
The average review from critics (a la RottenTomatoes) praise the film’s presentation and slick cinematography, but criticized the fact that the film discussed stereotypes and then did nothing to counter them, as it said it would. In fact, the film proved some stereotypes true. They also did not like Meet the Mormons’ pacing. The lack of conflict in the narratives wore out their welcome quickly. Critics were also disappointed to find that Mormons are, well, what the movie said we’d be: normal. Many non-Mormon critics wondered where the wives were, where the gay hatred was hiding, who the white supremacists really were, and why the people in the film weren’t walking around in their Mormon underwear.
Which is precisely why this film needed to be shown nationally.
Yes, some of our stereotypes are absolutely true. We don’t drink. We don’t work on Sunday. We read from the Book of Mormon. We go on missions. Some of us dance poorly. We tend to be successful in business and unrealistically talented. And, yes, some of us are blonde, over enthusiastic women with annoyingly cute voices who don’t quite know what to do with our hands when standing in front of a camera. And yes, darn it! We make good neighbors.
However, among the reviews, there seemed to be an air of distrust, cynicism, skepticism, and bias. Their preconceived notions about what the content was supposed to be demonstrates a bias and a misunderstanding of who Mormons are. Believe it or not, our Church meetings don’t revolve around a hatred of homosexuality every week. In fact, the subject is probably only brought up a couple times a year, and when it is it is done peacefully and respectfully. We don’t talk about racism and ending it – because generally we’re not all that racist. We don’t plan to build our own planets in primary, and we don’t call them “Mormon underwear.” They’re called garments. And they’re not secret. We just happen to talk to other people about our underwear just as frequently as you do in public social gatherings – not often. It just doesn’t come up.
While those are aspects of our faith and are social issues around the world (not just among Mormons), our worlds don’t revolve around them. Instead, we think about football. We play ping-pong. We run. We serve. We visit family. We barbecue. We struggle. We change. We succeed. And sometimes we drop candy on Germans. The point is that those things they think are so important to us really aren’t that important at all.
I guess the critics were underwhelmed and disappointed that the film wasn’t sensationalized. Maybe they were weirded out by how normal everything was. Ironically, the film did deliver when it said that it would challenge the way you view Mormons – it spun us in a different light. And people don’t like that.
Was the film horrible? No. What I saw was a gentle, pleasant, and inspiring showcase of some very interesting individuals. It didn’t rock my world, but it did make me want to go out and be a better me. It also made me love people of all cultures and want to serve them.
There were some problems with the film. Some of the GoPro shots from the Candy Bomber reenactment were disorienting, and some things were ridiculously embellished (did the Candy Bomber really prevent World War III? Really?) But it definitely didn’t disappoint.
What I would like to see from future Church ventures like this is an attempt to add more conflict. I would like to see them loosen up and not worry about looking so squeaky clean all the time. After all, there is a need for opposition in all things, right? By the third story in, I felt like I had just eaten three pieces of chocolate cake. While delicious and interesting, I was starting to get full. It wasn’t until the final story – arguably the most real – that my attention was fully focused on the film again. The lives of the subjects were just too bright, too cheery, too successful, too rich, to fully believe. I wish they had taken a more human approach and had found what each person struggled with and how they cope through faith: why it is both rewarding and hard to be a bishop when you have to counsel people on personal problems way over your head. What it’s like to be a minority religion in Costa Rica and to feel connected to a primarily American Church. How poverty truly causes suffering in Nepal, and how education has the power to overcome that suffering. I felt like they could have gone deeper, especially given the extraordinary people they had at their disposal.
I’m glad they took a documentary approach. The beauty of using true stories is that they really do show the typical Mormon way of life, and you can’t refute or dismiss them. It would be absolutely preposterous to walk out of the theatre and say, “No way. Anthony isn’t really half black and serving a mission in South Africa. Those racist Mormons must have paid him to be in the film. Along with all the other black people I saw in the movie.” or “How dare that man build schools in Nepal!”
What you could say is, “Well, is every Mormon really a one legged ski champ who adopts children? Probably not.” And you would be absolutely right in that assumption. Then again, the movie told you in the beginning to buckle up for some crazy diversity. And boy, it gave it to you.
As an experience as a whole, I loved going to the theatre. There were members and non-members there. The theatre was packed. I felt closer to my brothers and sisters and my Father in Heaven. I also felt good about myself, knowing that if the film turned a profit, the proceeds would be donated to The Red Cross. Clever marketing tactic, I know. But I totally bought in. I bought in because I believe in supporting Church art, and I believe in saving lives and helping others. I also believe in having a good time with my fiancé and strengthening our future family. I was able to do all three at once. The film made me grateful for good people in the world. While I recognized that no one in the film was truly as perfect as they were made out to be, it was cool to see that ideal, and it gave me something to strive to be like. I wanted to elevate my life. I wanted to strive, to dream, to reach, to serve, to become.
After all, that’s what the Gospel is truly about, right?