Review: Charly (B)

CharlyI haven’t read the popular LDS novel of the same name that Charly is based on (yes, I’m a cultural illiterate when it comes to LDS novels) so I can’ t comment on how faithful the movie is to the source material.  I can say, however, Charly is flawed, but decent — and deserves praise for including elements of ‘the spirit’ in its story.

Unlike other LDS films which seem to go to great lengths to avoid anything spiritual — especially identifiably LDS spirituality — Charly succeeds at being a decent movie AND a movie where specific LDS doctrine play key roles in the movie’s story (chastity, eternal marriage, and the plan of salvation).   At the same time, LDS theology is not laid on so thick that non-member viewers would feel they are on the outside looking in.  (Romances — of which Charly is undoubtedly one — are pretty universal across all religions and cultures.)

Charly is a bright, outgoing girl who is generally a good person, if a little worldly.  One day she meets Sam, who’s LDS, conservative and shy.  The two of them clash like oil and water at first, but start to warm up to each other eventually, especially after Charly converts to Mormonism herself.  Still in the picture is Charly’s original boyfriend Mark who views Charly’s recent life decisions with raised eyebrows, as do her parents.  Are Sam and Charly’s faith — and burgeoning feelings for each other — strong enough to make it through many serious trials and challenges?

The acting in Charly is generally good, especially from the title character, played by Heather Beers.  Mark — Charly’s former boyfriend — as played by Adam Johnson is also notable for being a fully rounded, “real” character despite being “The Other Guy” in this romantic setup.  Most “The Other Guys” in romantic comedies are reduced to mere caricatures painted in broad character strokes, and usually bad strokes at that, since, of course, we’re not supposed to want the girl to end up with him.  Mark’s character, on the other hand, is genuinely a nice guy — funny, full of personality, and treats Charly well when they’re together.  A far cry from other romances where his character would be primarily on the screen to be obnoxious and elicit “boo’s” from the audience.

Charly’s parents don’t turn out quite so well as supporting characters — due perhaps to necessary cuts from the book.  Charly’s dad makes special mention that he doesn’t like Mark because he’s a “jerk”, but never mentions any details.  Since we never see Mark acting like a jerk anytime in the movie that plot point becomes a non-starter.  (He also mentions he doesn’t like Mormons, but doesn’t go into detail here either.)   A little more fleshing out of Charly’s parents and their relationship to her would have made for a stronger movie.

The other main character, Sam, is a little more hit-and-miss. He’s good in the beginning (in fact, the banter between him and Charly early on is the best part of the movie), but some scenes near the end are almost cringingly bad (see: the ‘throwing things against the wall’ scene, for example) that dilutes the intended emotional impact.

Dialogue is a strong point of the movie, with some witty exchanges between the rambunctious Charly and the conservative Sam. Mark has some good lines too, within his small role. The movie handles both the light-hearted, comedic scenes and the more serious scenes well, with an appropriate balance (at least until the end).

As a downside, Charly’s conversion to Mormonism is given short-shrift.   For all the significance her gaining of a testimony of the restored gospel becomes in terms of how the movie progresses, not enough screen time is allocated to the actual conversion process.  More details as to how her character converts from the flamboyant yet worldly girl in the beginning to the more spiritually-minded person at the end would make her character arc more meaningful.

Also, the movie never did convince me that Charly and Sam were really a good match for each other, despite their relationship and marriage being inevitable given the confines of the script.  Despite having the same religious beliefs, there didn’t seem to be any way they complemented each other, even before the “conflict” that separates them during the movie’s middle stages.  Naturally — per the established formula in romances — the female lead and the male lead inevitably work out their differences and get back together, but I didn’t get a sense there was a strong enough connection from Charly to Sam beforehand to stop the “conflict” from being a deal-breaker, despite Sam’s apology.  (At that point, I thought it was far more realistic that Charly would have continued being Mormon in New York, giving other Mormon guys a chance, perhaps, without pining for Sam’s company).

Admittedly, thinking the two main characters aren’t a good match and shouldn’t be together may sound like a fatal flaw for a ‘romance’, but in actuality Charly works despite not having amazing romantic chemistry between the leads.

Incidents and events at the end of the movie — discussed in more “spoilery” fashion below — raise important and key questions about God’s plan, which the movie (and perhaps the book, too) doesn’t answer.  In fact, the movie seems to be saying there is no answer — which is defensible, perhaps, but I would submit that there are a number of possible (and uncomplicated) explanations and it would have been nice to see Charly make some attempt to reconcile the subject from a philosophical basis for the audience’s benefit.

Still, the movie deserves credit for even attempting to bring up some deep spiritual issues, rather than be satisfied with being ‘merely’ a light LDS romantic comedy.  Whether or not you’ve read the book, Charly is a solid movie and recommended for LDS viewers.

Final Grade: B

Analysis and Other Comments (spoilers):

(1) One of Charly’s strong points is how it treats the subject of sex in a straight-forward manner.  Most LDS films don’t want to come within ten miles of the word ‘sex’, even with married characters.  (Babies could literally be brought by storks for all you’d know from LDS films)  Except for, maybe, States of Grace, Charly stands alone among LDS films in its admission that, yes, people in the world have sex.  Sometimes a lot.  Sometimes even for fun, instead of merely to get pregnant.  Even sometimes — *gasp* — before they are married.  And yet, those people can still be good, decent individuals despite having a sexual ‘history’.

There should be no doubt that Sam’s aversion to “used merchandise” is not a unique attitude among LDS men.  And the filmmakers of Charly — along with author Jack Weyland — deserve credit for dealing with the ‘s-word’ in a direct manner.   Sam’s mother could have easily given him “counsel” of the form, “Well, I know it’s a tough situation, but just think about it and do what you think is best”.  Instead, she basically tells Sam in a direct and brave manner, “You’re wrong.  And stupid.”  Good for her…

(2)

“It was not expedient that man should be reclaimed from this temporal death, for that would destroy the great plan of happiness.” –Alma 42:8

So, why do people die?  Not just “eventually”, but why do good people fall prey to disease and death, even at a young age?  The movie raises the issue, but doesn’t present much of an answer. Here are a few thoughts:

Within LDS theology, the purpose of death itself seems clear. Mankind is here on this earth for a short time to learn and grow and then go on to other things. Death is the gateway by which we travel to other planes of existence — the next step in our eternal progression. Death is also vital in order to bring about the resurrection — the old body must be shed before the new body can be obtained. The concept of death remains nebulous and vague for most, and that is also accordance with God’s plan. A quote (possibly apocryphal) from Joseph Smith said that (paraphrasing) if everyone knew exactly what it was like beyond the veil, they’d do everything in their power to try and get there.  Meaning the fear of death is natural so that mankind might continue to ‘cling to life’ and accomplish the Lord’s purposes.

A common question about death is ‘why does the Lord allow good people to be killed by bad people’?  The most common answer is free agency.  The Lord will not force anyone to be good, and mankind wouldn’t be able to learn about the value of life if the ability to take life was taken away from them by some divine mandate. (In other words, you must always have the opportunity to choose evil, if choosing good is to have any meaning.)

But what about diseases, birth defects, and other natural causes of death?  It seems like these are not usually tied to anyone else’s free agency, but instead seem to be an integral part of the Creation.  Why would God allow children to be born with severe diseases which cause them to die young?  Why would God allow young mothers and fathers to be struck down in the prime of life?  Why would God allow older people to grow frail and weak, needing constant care and nursing?

Let’s assume the opposite for a moment: what would happen if God suddenly decreed that everyone would live to a proper age (say 75) and then peacefully pass away, and that no one would be subject to any untimely deaths from accidents or disease?  What if you knew exactly what day you were going to die? How would that make your life different? Would the world be better or worse?

In Alma 34, we read:

33 …I beseech of you that ye do not procrastinate the day of your repentance until the end; for after this day of life, which is given us to prepare for eternity, behold, if we do not improve our time while in this life, then cometh the night of darkness wherein there can be no labor performed.
35 For behold, if ye have procrastinated the day of your repentance even until death, behold, ye have become subjected to the spirit of the devil, and he doth seal you his; therefore, the Spirit of the Lord hath withdrawn from you, and hath no place in you, and the devil hath all power over you; and this is the final state of the wicked.

If we knew the exact length of time until death for us and everyone else, wouldn’t we see tremendous procrastination?  Everyone would think, “I can be bad while I’m young because I know I’ll have plenty of time to ‘repent’ and be righteous again later in life…” Family members would put off reconciling with other family members for years since they would know they weren’t going anywhere and there was still plenty of time to overcome personal conflicts sometime later.

We could surmise that under this new plan, untimely deaths and the accompanying sadness would be reduced, but new problems would immediately arise, some with more costly consequences on human souls.  Perhaps “uncertainty” is a fundamental part of God’s plan.  If we don’t know for sure if we’re going to be alive tomorrow, then we need to take care of things today; put our personal lives in order so that we’d be prepared to ‘meet God’, etc…  If I don’t know for sure what will happen tomorrow, I’d be more inclined to make sure I tell my wife I love her, or spend more quality time with my four kids today.  Disease and other forms of untimely deaths (such as car accidents), while tragic, are necessary to give us the incentive to do good today, not tomorrow.

(Let’s note also, that belief in God does not automatically mean belief in God as a micro-manager.  Perhaps God doesn’t “cause” cancer, or fatal traffic accidents, but has created a system where biological flaws are a regular occurance.  Or where laws of physics, for example, dictate what happens when moving cars encounter various physical conditions.  Such tragedies can be part of God’s plan, without needing Him to be physically selecting certain people, snapping His fingers, and causing disease or accidents to occur.  Even in a universe with a God, random stuff can still happen…)

Arguably, illnesses give us opportunities to serve others and grow spiritually. Sam would not have chosen to have Charly die young, obviously, but her early passing allowed the two of them to treasure the moments together more (admittedly, Sam doesn’t take advantage of the short time they have left due to personal issues at first, and that’s an important lesson as well).   Will Sam (eventually) become a better person for the experience?  Arguably, yes.

[For a more complete explanation of death and its part in the plan of salvation, you might check out "Gateway We Call Death" by Russell M. Nelson]