Review: One Good Man (B-)

One Good ManIn the indie film scene — Sundance Film Festival fare, for example — “edginess” is king.  A male character off the street in indie movies is fifty times more likely to be a drug dealer or working for the mob than in real life. Female characters are fifty times more likely to be lesbians. If there’s a priest character, he’s probably a child molester. If there’s a married couple, you can bet one or both of them will be revealed to be cheating on the other before the end.

One can’t say it’s not ‘realistic’ because people like that do exist, but it is still a little skewed — indie films generally show a biased view of real life, where edgy, darker material is unusually commonplace for the sake of conflict and drama.

In the LDS film scene, on the other hand — particularly in the films of writer/director Christian Vuissa — “edginess” is almost a bad word. In contrast to the cynicism and nihilism of the typical indie film, Vuissa — the anti-Richard Dutcher, if you will — presents movie worlds that are clean, pure, and idealistic to a fault.

One Good Man is so cheerfully innocent it’s either a beacon of refreshing optimism in a dark, cynical world, or something condescendingly naïve — possibly both. It’s a movie so free of ‘edge’ it’s basically a perfect sphere.

Is that a compliment? It really depends on what you’re looking for in a movie. One Good Man is well-produced with a decent cast, and will hit the spot of what a lot of LDS audience members are looking for:  a feel good experience that never touches anything intellectually or spiritually challenging.  For everyone else, though, the lack of edge makes the film dramatically inert.

The title character is a forty-something man named Aaron, married with six kids ranging from 23 to 8.  One day, he finds himself called to be bishop of his ward at the same time he is dealing with a lot of work and family stress.

He and his kids all face challenges, but — here’s the problem — they are all “safe” challenges and trials. Nothing that would cause any of the characters (or anyone in the primary target audience) to reach out of their LDS comfort zones. Many of them aren’t really “trials” at all in any sense of the word, rather just life circumstances that are stressful but ultimately happy.

The safeness of One Good Man almost makes it a funny exercise to ponder how an edgier indie film director might have handled these same characters and situations:

Aaron, the Dad: He’s honest, sincere, works hard and cares about both his family, his employees and his ward. He has no bad habits, and there’s never a hint he’s ever had a heated argument with his wife, his kids, or anyone else his entire life.
In an “edgy” film: he’d be struggling with a few financial or spiritual issues, and occasionally get in arguments with his family members about them.
In an “edgier” film: he’d have a problem with either drugs, gambling, or pornography that he’d be desperate to keep hidden from the people around him while trying to maintain a righteous exterior.

Cindy, the Mom: She always has a pleasant demeanor, and is fabulously supportive and loving of her husband in everything she does.
“Edgy” film: Somewhere in the film, Aaron would come home one day and find her crying, leading directly into an argument about how he’s never home and he’s neglecting his family in lieu of his church calling or his work.
“Edgier” film: she’s completely overwhelmed, burnt-out, and on anti-depressants…

Laura (23): Her “trial” is that she’s getting married to a guy with non-member parents who won’t be able to attend their temple sealing.
“Edgy”: they’re considering NOT getting married in the temple so his parents won’t be excluded, and just get sealed the next year.
“Edgier”: they admit to her dad that they went a little too far with each other one night and now aren’t worthy to get married in the temple at all.

Luke (19): He is preparing for a mission, and is excited about it.  His biggest “trial” is that he still hasn’t gone to the dentist yet.
“Edgy”: he’s considering marrying his high school girlfriend, or accepting an athletic scholarship to a top college instead of a mission.
“Edgier”: “Dad, Mom, guess what? I’m gay!”

Amanda (16): She is a “rebel”, which in this movie means she occasionally stays out past her curfew…by an hour. And when she was eight, she didn’t want to be baptized…for ten months. (She also has a nose piercing — oooh, edgy! — which for some reason no one in the movie notices or discusses.)
“Edgy”: she has a boyfriend who’s in a gang, and she’s involved with drugs.
“Edgier”: …and pregnant.

As bishop, Aaron has to help ward members with their own trials, which in this movie are limited to: sicknesses, job layoffs, not knowing who their home teachers are, and not having family members visit regularly.
(Edgier movie: “So, Bishop, why were blacks denied the priesthood again?”, “Bishop, my husband is verbally and physically abusive…and he’s one of your counselors.”, “Bishop, I just learned about Joseph Smith and polyandry and, um…I have some concerns.”)

Reading the above descriptions you might wonder where the drama is in the movie. It’s a good question — most LDS viewers would *love* to have Aaron’s family’s “trials”.

Vuissa, like all filmmakers, has the right to create whatever narrative he deems appropriate — no one needs to be “edgy” for the sake of being “edgy”, certainly — but how are viewers supposed to be emotionally invested in the protagonist’s success, when he’s already pretty successful?  Aaron’s family, right up to the end of the movie, spends most of their time smiling and doing happy things.

(Aaron’s one emotional breakdown — when an 80-something-year-old widow in his ward passes away — seems a little forced. If a good woman at the end of her life passing away in peace is really the worst thing that’s happened in Aaron’s family or ward, then we may as well break out the hymnals and sing “Count Your Blessings”. Compare to him finding out his 16-year-old daughter overdosed or something…)

Like Vuissa’s previous film The Errand of Angels — where the sister missionaries’ approach to resolving concerns was to smile politely and hope their investigators forget about those silly concerns so they can get on with their baptism — One Good Man doesn’t have any intention of exploring any true concerns or trials in active LDS life. No one ever doubts their testimony, or speaks angrily with another person, or struggles with any specific, identified problem. Things are so “safe” the experience is pleasant, but a little hollow for anyone with any real-world experience in the Church.

It’s not that the movie needs a gay character, or someone who is involved with drugs or pornography in order to be interesting, you just get the sense in this movie’s universe, drugs (or gay members) don’t even exist, and thus no need to give any of those issues even one thought.  Short of job layoffs (which only affect other people — Aaron is never in danger of losing his own job), there’s nothing to bind this film solidly in the real world, for real-world Church members to identify with.

There are two good elements, which I will mention: One Good Man has one (1) instance of thinking outside the LDS box — Aaron comes up with a meaningful ‘solution’ to the problem of his son-in-law’s parents not being able to attend the temple.  Which I won’t spoil, but is probably the best and most emotionally genuine scene in the film.

And there is one interesting plot element — not coincidently, the element that contains the most inherent drama — that involves the awkward conflicts that can arise when you have a working relationship with someone in your ward:  where your bishop is also your boss. (This suggests a direction the film could have taken, but didn’t. See the “Notes” section below)

In the end, I’m not sure what Vuissa intended the point of One Good Man to be, as the main character is a good man at the beginning, and is just about the same at the end. “Be patient with your bishop,” perhaps, “because he’s probably got a lot on his plate”?

The end result is more of a “cinematic scrapbook” of LDS experiences, rather than a dramatic statement.  It is full of images of families talking and laughing together, sons excitedly opening mission calls and returning home honorably, daughters getting married in the temple, parents celebrating 25 years of a happy marriage, etc…  LDS families who don’t have more serious problems to worry about may smile and enjoy One Good Man as reminiscences of their own happy family experiences.

LDS families who *do* have more serious problems to worry about, though, may possibly enjoy this brief “fantasy” look at an idealistic family, but more likely will ask, “Do the filmmakers seriously think this is a realistic portrait of life in the Church today?” A fair question, that…

One Good Man is pleasant, but far removed from a serious comment about life in LDS families today.

Final Grade: B-

Additional Notes and Comments:

(1) It’s arguable that One Good Man has the wrong lead character — and, in fact, I’m going to argue it.

In the film, Aaron is given a task by his boss to downsize, and he’s forced to lay off many of his workers. One of the unfortunate layoff victims is a guy named Doug Fisher, who is also a member of Aaron’s ward.  He’s just had a baby (his fourth) when Aaron lets him know he’s being laid off. Stunned, Doug asks what he did wrong and how it is that he (Aaron, his bishop) can do such a thing to his family, especially now.

Later, Aaron meets with Doug and his wife — this time as bishop — although as you might expect, it’s a little awkward. Aaron, after all, still has his job and although he protests that he did everything he could, there’s no real way for Doug to know that, is there?   From Doug’s perspective, here’s a guy who says he’s trying to help after being the one who laid him off in the first place. It’s no surprise it comes off as a little hollow.

Doug seems to be “One Good Man” too, trying to take care of his family as best he can. All of a sudden, though, life becomes a big struggle, and he and his wife’s church activity start to wane. Wouldn’t it seem like God has abandoned them? Shouldn’t there be more “blessings” in his life after living the commandments and doing what is right for so long?  How are they supposed to really trust this bishop of theirs again, anyway?  Will they find their way back into full church activity again?

All of the above elements are taken directly from a sub-plot of One Good Man. Doesn’t it naturally seem like Doug’s story is much more interesting than Aaron’s?

Why not make Doug the main character of One Good Man? Certainly his story has more inherent drama in it, where Doug struggles with supporting his family, and with these new challenges to his testimony.  Aaron would still have a role as a supporting character: someone who is trying to help, but whose very presence reminds Doug of how much better things have worked out for Aaron rather than himself.   This wouldn’t even be that “edgy” a direction for an LDS film to take, but one certainly with a lot more dramatic potential.

(2) A related idea:  obviously there are conflicts of interest when you work with someone in your ward, especially with the bishop/boss relationship. If someone is forced to do layoffs, would he take into account the fact that certain workers are members of his own church, even in his own congregation, when deciding who goes and who stays?  Would it be defensible if he went a little easier on people he knew and associated with, or would that be fundamentally unethical?  Would it be defensible to consider whether the employee had a family to support when making layoff decisions?  There are a lot of gray areas here in terms of ethics that could be explored in a different film…

(3) Recently AWOL “Queen of Mormon Cinema” candidate Heather Beers (Charly, Baptists at our Barbecue) has a thirty second cameo.

(4) Salt Lake City appears to have an NFL team now in Vuissa’s alternate universe. Unless I heard incorrectly, a co-worker who tempts Aaron with Monday Night Football instead of Family Home Evening specifically talks about “going” to the game, not “watching” the game.  (And says later, “You should have *gone*”)  I’m assuming he’s not driving to Denver and back…

(5) The previews indicate Vuissa has a Joseph Smith film in the works for 2010.  It’ll be interesting to see if it is as “spherical” as this one…

  • http://adamkk.com/main Adam K. K. Figueira

    So, I considered going point by point and stating my disagreements, but instead I think I’ll sum it up by saying that my main issue with this review is the position it takes that any trial not associated with drugs, porn, pregnancy, and so forth is trivial and therefore irrelevant, and that a film has to deal with the baser elements of the human experience in order to be intellectually or spiritually challenging. Correct me if I’m reading these things into your review unfairly.
    What Vuissa has done here is create a film about (and largely for) those within the Church whose lifestyles, locations, and choices largely remove them from situations in which influences like drugs and pornography become major temptations. This is something, incidentally, that Gospel living is supposed to do for us. I recognize the dramatic potential inherent in a story that deals with characters who have not yet cemented themselves in such a lifestyle, or who struggle to make such choices, but does that make the struggles of the other any less legitimate, or any easier.
    Aaron Young is a man commonly found in the Church – one who has no great malignant secrets and who largely succeeds in his efforts to live the Gospel – and his challenges are real. His underlying motive for everything is to be true to his religion, and when obvious morality doesn’t factor in (like in the case of the golf franchise decision) to do right by those he has influence with. His fundamental conflict is to be in but decreasingly of the world – a premise that by its nature precludes the relevance of the greater vices to his character. Most of the supporting characters are in the same boat.
    The only other point I want to touch on is that I think you misinterpret the teenage daughter’s role in the film. Her depicted disobedience may be limited to coming home after curfew, but the film never answers the question of what she is so reluctant to part from every night. Her behavior is never seen by the audience because it is never seen by Aaron, but he clearly suffers some heartache over the fact that he doesn’t know what she is doing. The nose piercing doesn’t need to be discussed. It is merely a visual marker for the family “black sheep.” The brief scene in which she approaches Aaron to talk to him “as my bishop” is sufficient to imply that her doings have been contrary to Gospel standards, and not merely to arbitrarily determined deadlines. Do we have to see her smoking, doing drugs, or being lured into a young man’s bed to conceive that any of these things are possibilities? This is Vuissa’s way of acknowledging these things without showing them to us. Their presence in this film would undermine its tone and drive away its target audience. That this acknowledgment doesn’t occur with every character is both fine and, as you said, more realistic than the ultra edgy films that the indie world cherishes.
    This may be overreaching a bit, but I also seem to recall that after the daughter’s presumed repentance she is only seen wearing clothing that could easily conceal a budding pregnancy. I may be wrong about that.
    I do agree that some of the characters are drawn with less depth than may be desirable, but overall I think Vuissa accomplishes what he sets out to do, which is acknowledge the challenges of the community that he comes from.

  • KevinB

    I agree that drugs and/or pregnancy aren’t essential to portray compelling trials, but the trials that ARE portrayed still seem very minor compared to the tone of the movie, which appears to think they are more major than they are…

    It’s possible the daughter talked to her bishop/dad because of serious issues with drugs or sex.  It’s also possible the daughter talked to her bishop/dad because she didn’t get along with her Young Women’s leader.  Since the movie didn’t specify one way or the other, we’re left to guess.

    If she was pregnant, why not address it directly?  I don’t see why dealing with a real-world problem in specific terms would “undermine its tone” since the tone of the movie appears to be “look how many serious problems this good man has to deal with in his life”.

    I don’t believe in “edginess for the sake of edginess”, but a character drama like this one needs…drama.  Doug’s story has drama (and not of the sort that would make LDS audiences uncomfortable), whereas Aaron and his family judged from any angle are doing pretty well indeed.  Most LDS families would love to have his “trials”.

    Perhaps the closer an LDS family is to Aaron’s in their life experiences, the more positively they will view this movie.  My life is pretty distant, so that may explain why I didn’t respond to it as much…

  • AdamK

    Dealing with a “real world” problem wouldn’t undermine the tone. Showing sex and drug use would. That was the point I was trying to make. And yes, the Youngs are doing well. That’s never in question.

     

    I have a hard time buying a young woman asking to talk to her dad “as my bishop” because she didn’t like a YW leader. I think the mood of that scene and the fact that the daughter specifically avoids talking to her dad outside church about her late night doings are sufficient to imply that she has something at least moderately serious to confess. It might be euphemistic, but it’s in keeping with the film’s general avoidance of putting a name and face on deep worldly vices.

     

    Which raises my main point: what makes a trial significant? I don’t think we can say that divorces, drugs, and teenage pregnancies are more serious trials than those the film addresses – not to the people undergoing those trials. Is it a light thing to be responsible for the temporal and spiritual welfare of several hundred people, all of whom are both following and monitoring your example? Is it easy to raise a family under any circumstances? Is it easy to have to separate your spiritual and professional lives when they involve the same people?

     

    I agree that the film missed some opportunities in regards to the latter question. It could have gone deeper there. But the trials we see are “real world” trials for many people. Their lives make the other kinds of trials irrelevant. To them, such “trials” are easy because of the decisions they’ve made.

     

    To repeat a privately communicated sentiment: I don’t think the point was to show LDS folks dealing with the dirtiest, most worldly challenges. I think it was to depict the essence of a life lived on as high a road as the protagonists could find. To a man like Aaron Young, losing his job would have been preferable to and infinitely easier than having to lay off dozens of others. Bad relations with the in-laws can be terrifying when eternal families are at stake.

     

    One Good Man wasn’t perfect by any means, but I don’t see the choice of conflicts as one of its flaws. I do agree that they are hard to dramatize on film, but that doesn’t make them in any way light.

  • Bryan

    I see what both of you are saying. For me, the film failed due largely to its flimsy and obvious contrivances (gee, five kids with MAJOR life events all happening within two weeks of each other, all set around the Christmas holidays? Oh-kay . . .) and lack of dramatic conflict/realism. No one ever gets stressed out in this movie. No one leaves a mess and fails to clean it up. More specifically to Aaron’s situation, we don’t see how he performs as bishop. The endless meetings, working with counselors, the ups and downs of issuing calls and releases and conducting worthiness interviews and working with the youth and being a wise steward of Church resources — you know, the kinds of things that anyone who’s been in a bishopric for just a few weeks would understand, and which would be wonderful dramatic fodder for a movie (and which I came to this film expecting) — were entirely missing. Even the layoff scene with Doug (which was badly handled by Aaron) never had any lasting effects on Aaron’s mind. Doesn’t he ever regret his mistakes, poorly given/badly timed counsel, or lose much sleep due to all the cares on his mind?
    The film’s premise is great, but it failed to live up to its potential. I’m still waiting for a movie to show us what it’s really like to serve in a demanding Church calling, frivolous family issues aside.

  • http://adamkk.com/main Adam K. K. Figueira

    “More specifically to Aaron’s situation, we don’t see how he performs as bishop. The endless meetings, working with counselors, the ups and downs of issuing calls and releases and conducting worthiness interviews and working with the youth and being a wise steward of Church resources — you know, the kinds of things that anyone who’s been in a bishopric for just a few weeks would understand, and which would be wonderful dramatic fodder for a movie (and which I came to this film expecting) — were entirely missing.”
     
    I agree with you there, Bryan. The best representation of that stress that we see is the permanent worry lines on Aaron’s face. Though how and why they got there is pretty much just supposed to be understood by the audience.
     
    As far as big events all at once, not long ago my family had two graduations, a marriage, and a baby all within two weeks, so I don’t see it as impossible. Unlikely perhaps, but large LDS families with that age distribution among their kids often have overlapping major life events. But they’re generally in June, not December. :)

  • Pingback: Coming Soon: Joseph Smith Volume 1 — Plates of Gold » LDS Cinema Online

  • Pingback: This Week in Mormon Literature, August 18, 2012 | Dawning of a Brighter Day

  • Pingback: Review: Silent Night (B) » LDS Cinema Online