In 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…
(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…