2016-06-30
I just saw something truly new: a movie by a Mormon, about Mormons, and for Mormons (and non-Mormons too) that is not only good, but very good.

"God's Army" is a feature film that depicts the struggle of a young Mormon missionary in downtown Los Angeles adjusting to an alien city and the rigors and rewards of a new spiritual life--and the struggle of his older mentor, who has a terminal disease, to adjust to the end of his own mortal life.

It premiered this weekend in 13 theaters in Utah. After its Utah run, the filmmakers are planning to take "God's Army" to Las Vegas, Los Angeles, major American cities, especially where there are temples, and then Latin America.

The writer and director, Richard Dutcher, a devout Mormon, grew up in Mapleton, Utah, went to Brigham Young University, then became a Hollywood screenwriter. He did "Girl Crazy" for HBO and "Eliza and I," about the poet convert who became a wife to both Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, for PBS. But his love of movies was constantly filled with the regret that he could never see the life he knew as a present-day Mormon represented on the screen.

As he said in a recent interview, "I've always been irritated that Mormons are always portrayed so one-dimensionally, if at all. We never see real, true, flesh-and-blood Mormon people in a film."

Dutcher took a chance on his faith that both Mormons and non-Mormons would respond to a film about such "flesh and blood" Mormons, wrote a script, raised $1 million, and directed and produced a fine movie.

I went to a preview, I admit, with rather low expectations. I left, however, impressed and anxious to see more from this fine young film-maker. He achieves that extremely difficult task of narrative art, taking us into a new world, a seamless whole where we can live believably awhile and learn important things.

The background details of scenes (from Spartan missionary digs to the impervious moral chaos of Sunset Boulevard) are convincing. The fast-paced dialogue, often very clever, always rings true. The clear action is motivated by interesting characterization (especially of the older missionary, played by Dutcher, whose intensity as a mature convert knowing he will die soon sometimes leads him to press things too far).

The restrained, unsentimental, but convincing score is by Miriam Cutler, a Jewish composer, who told an interviewer, "If people can get past their own prejudices, they will quickly forget that these are Mormon missionaries and just see them as young people struggling with big questions."

One of my favorite scenes is one where Dutcher and Cutler have the courage to hold back from the tendency, especially in religious films, to try to create or overplay the intended emotion with some expected cliche of music.

The "greenie," Elder Allen, spends an entire night reading, praying, struggling in the spirit to gain the faith he came on his mission without. There are no words, no music, just the occasional outside sounds of the struggling city--a car's horn, a cry, a siren--as a subtle reflection of and then contrast to the young man's inner journey whose completion is seen only in his face.

Dutcher also has the courage to take us out to the edges, both positive and negative, of Mormon cultural life.

As a teacher and critic of Mormon literature, I have watched Mormon writers struggle for 20 years to measure up to Mormon President Spencer W. Kimball's 1977 call in "The Gospel Vision of the Arts" for Mormon artists to move out of the safe middle ground and include the full range of our experience, from the "struggles and frustrations, the apostasies and inner revolutions" to the "rapture." In his first effort, Dutcher has done that.

One missionary reads anti-Mormon literature obsessively, neglects the study and attention to duty that could balance that, and leaves for home--but not until after facing the Elder Dalton in a harrowing scene where Dalton, who has been through the same struggle as a new convert, loses his temper and says things he will regret. And one scene has a pair of elders, one a young black convert, trying, without much success and against a lot of hostility, to convince a black couple that the Church is not racist, given its earlier exclusion of blacks from the priesthood.

But there is also a remarkable scene where the young black elder tells how he came to his own spiritual peace about that issue and another that matter-of-factly records Elder Dalton giving a priesthood blessing and its miraculous results.

The new thing here is Mormon filmmaking that takes Mormon religious culture seriously and explores it for understanding both Mormon and universal concerns. He noticed that other groups, such as black and gays, who objected to the way they were portrayed in mainstream films, eventually created low-budget films for their own community, which then appealed to a larger audience. Now he has done it, too.

As I have pointed out to many young Mormon writers worried their non-Mormon audiences won't understand the details of Mormon culture, there are now over five million American Mormons who can make up an adequate and appreciative audience, so why not write well for them?

Dutcher is wisely going to that audience first, but I believe "God's Army" will gradually gain a wider audience as well. As Dutcher told another writer, "I think the 'inside things' in the movie, instead of pushing the audience away, will fill the audience in. The more specific the characters are, the more universal the film becomes."

Great writers from Chaucer to Faulkner to Chaim Potok have realized this and have written specifically about relatively small cultures.

Go see this film, and tell others to go. Richard Dutcher has great talent and energy and can make more and better films with the success we can help provide him. He is already planning some sequels: the black elder as a schoolteacher in St. George, Elder Allen and one of the somewhat feminist sister missionaries who gives him a particularly hard time, married students at BYU. He has shown he can write and direct and produce and act. He knows the current trends in good movie-making. And he can put together an effective working crew of Mormons and others (the film editor, score composer, and most of the actors are non-Mormon).

Let's be part of that crew and help him give wide distribution to this major new achievement in the Mormon arts.

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