LDS Film Festival 2011: Day 2/Day 3 Report

Brief reports from Friday / Saturday from the 2011 LDS Film Festival:

My Girlfriend's BoyfriendMy Girlfriend’s Boyfriend

Earlier I said Midway To Heaven was “the funniest LDS comedy since The RM“.  Not even 48 hours later, we have a new winner.  My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend may only marginally be an “LDS film” with no LDS characters or content (and — audience note — slightly more PG-13 material), but regardless writer/director (and BYU alum) Daryn Tufts has created a film that is sharp, hilarious, and just about brilliant in terms of structure and writing.

Jesse (a well cast Alyssa Milano) is a young cafe worker looking for love again after a divorce.  One day, she meets Nathan (Chris Gorham, The Other Side Of Heaven) a poor, struggling writer with whom she hits it off almost immediately.  After Nathan departs, Troy (Michael Landes) walks in — a sharply-dressed businessman who’s funny, confident (not to mention rich) and sweeps Jesse off her feet at once.

Two potential boyfriends are a nice problem to have, of course, and Jesse does the only logical thing: she’s starts dating both guys at once.  After all, odds are it won’t work out with at least one of them, right?   Except, since this is a comedy, it *does* work out, and Jesse starts getting serious with both men at the same time.  Now what?

Let’s talk about good writing for a second.  Many writers assume predictability is death — that having the audience figure out what’s going to happen ahead of time is a fast ticket to mediocrity and having your script tossed in the “Don’t Bother” pile.  However, throwing in surprises and plot twists out of left field just to shake things up can just as easily lead to an incoherent, illogical, and ultimately disappointing experience.

Good writing turns predictability into a strength — where the concept and setup are strong enough that the audience is still on the edge of their seats over what’s coming, even (sometimes especially) if they’ve already predicted it ahead of time.

My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend has a perfect comedic scenario:  our heroine Jesse appears to have two boyfriends whom she loves and would never deliberately hurt.  She wants to get out it without anyone getting hurt…yet, that’s obviously impossible.  Jesse seems to coast along without making a decision hoping things will work out, whereas the audience knows it won’t.  The crisis is coming, and we’re looking forward to the inevitable awkward (and funny) situations that will arise.

Given the above setup, attentive movie viewers can basically predict things that will inevitably happen:

(1) Jesse will make a (somewhat feeble) attempt to break it off with one or both of them and be thwarted.

(In the movie, Jesse does the old “I have something important to talk to you about” with Nathan and then backtrack when the situation becomes unfeasible.  Nathan knows she’s not telling him something, but doesn’t know what.)

(2) Circumstances will arise that will force Jesse’s hand before she’s ready.

(In the movie, Nathan asks Jesse to marry him, and Troy asks Jesse to move to Austin with him to start a new branch of his company.  Uh, oh…)

Predicting either element ahead of time hasn’t hurt the movie at all.   We knew trouble was coming and we want to know how (or if) Jesse is going to get out of it.

Let’s take it a step further:  an audience member (like I did) can predict even more subsequent scenes that are likely to happen, given the setup:

(a) Perhaps Jesse will run into one of the two men (or their families) while on a date with the other, and have to go to exaggerated and comical lengths to keep the situation under control.

(b) In the film, Nathan makes an off-hand comment about possibly going into advertising (since his writing career appears to be going nowhere).  We already know Troy is in advertising — so perhaps Nathan will apply for a job in Troy’s company or something, leading to more comedically awkward encounters involving Jesse.

There’s a lot of potential here, no matter what happens.   It really doesn’t matter whether the audience successfully predicts (a) or (b) above before it happens — either one can create a funny and memorable experience.  We *know* Nathan and Troy have to find out about each other eventually, right?  Jesse’s “secrets” have to be exposed, right?   Tears have to be shed, forgiveness has to be asked then granted, and Jesse has to end up with the “right” guy by the time the end credits roll…right?

The amazing part here is that Tufts gets to have it both ways:  he skips over (a) and (b) above for a completely audacious (c) option — an ending that is both completely predictable and completely unpredictable at the same time.    Sure, secrets are revealed, tears are shed, and our heroine ends up with the ‘right’ guy in the end (just as you would have predicted from the start) but the path to get there is not only brilliantly unique, but completely consistent with everything that has come before it in the film.

This is great writing — I’m sorely jealous.  (I haven’t even mentioned Jesse’s brother who has some of the funniest moments in the film…)  Whatever Darin Tufts has up his sleeve in the future, I’m already looking forward to it.

My Grade: A-

The Real Life Singles WardThe Real Life Singles Ward

John Moyer, writer of the first and second Singles Ward movies, now presents a documentary about real life singles in the LDS Church.  Composed primarily of  first-hand testimonials from currently (and formerly) single Latter-Day Saints, The Real Life Singles Ward is a compelling look at some important concerns about modern LDS dating, especially for those singles 26 or older.

Some issues discussed in the film:

  • How being single in a Church focused almost exclusively on families affects one’s self-esteem.  (hint: badly)
  • How singles over 30 particularly can be considered “weirdos” or “damaged goods” and have very few dating and marriage options.
  • How Church leaders can often speak condescendingly to singles when they discuss the importance of marriage — causing more harm than good.  (Most LDS singles — surprise, surprise! — are already well aware the Church emphasizes marriage and they need to get married.)

There’s a lot of insightful commentary about a variety of dating aspects:  the seemingly obligatory need to come up with creative, over-the-top ways of asking someone out, quick “marriage roulette” relationships with short courtships, NCMO (Non-Committal Make Out), online dating, the male tendency to “hang out” rather than commit, and how being  divorced or widowed makes the single experience differ.  There’s a lot of humor here (I dare say this film is a lot funnier than The Singles 2nd Ward, a supposed “comedy”) as well as heartfelt commentary, and virtually all of it rings true.

The documentary feels like it could have been longer, in fact, with more in-depth exploration of some of the important aspects of LDS single life.  Many significant issues are addressed only obliquely, or not at all:  the S-E-X issue, and dating outside the faith, for example, as well as the extremely low activity rate for single Latter-Day Saints throughout the world — and how the Church might be contributing to that disaffection.  (Singles — particularly single men — are often treated as pariahs, unworthy of even the basic respect or sympathy.  No wonder many fall away.)

Lots of room for a follow-up documentary, in other words, but still an entertaining and informative experience about issues that Church leaders and married Saints should be more familiar with.

My Grade: B

Jonah & The Great FishJonah And The Great Fish

There’s a part in Jonah And The Great Fish when three singing lobsters are dancing across the screen, serenading Jonah the fisherman as he heads off to the city of Ninevah.   If you didn’t know the LDS background of the filmmakers, you might assume this is meant to be some weird Monty-Python-esque “ironic silliness” (or that there was some major “herbal refreshments” being ingested when this film was conceived).

As part of the Liken series of scriptural films, it’s actually “sincere silliness”.  And that’s okay, as Jonah And The Great Fish (like Esther & The King before it) is aimed squarely at the family audience, including younger kids.

Jonah is the first feature-length film in the Liken series (previously films, like Esther, were only about an hour long) and since Jonah is actually a shorter story in the Bible than Esther, this allows more room for “creative interpretation”.   The story is framed with a real-world segment featuring an 8th-grader named Chloe, nervous about moving to a new city and a new school.  Her father tells her the story of Jonah, who receives a call to visit the supposedly wicked city of Ninevah, and instead flees in the other direction, leading to an awkward encounter with a large fish.

(The fish is a talking character named Humphrey in this version, who’s nice and is visualized to be swallowing Jonah whole to save him from sharks in this version.  Humphrey pals around with a smaller fish named Chum — who is about as direct a rip-off of Dory from Finding Nemo as you can get without getting lawyers involved.)

Once Jonah gets to Ninevah, he finds the city has been divided West Side Story-style between two dancing gangs, whose differentiating characteristic is which hand they wear their glove on.  (Shades of the Dr. Seuss story of the Sneetches who were divided by stars on their bellies…)  Jonah resolves the division in the city (very efficiently…with exactly eight words of dialogue) and everyone lives happily ever after.

The version of Jonah shown at the LDS Film Festival was said to be “unfinished”, however, the current screened copy shares the same major production problem with the finished version of Esther & The King:  the orchestral soundtrack is mixed way too high, with the background music frequently drowning out the singing and the dialogue.   The filmmakers will still have time to make tweaks before the official release later in the year, however two features in a row with the same problem is troubling.   Someone needs to go slap the sound mixers at Lightstone Productions on the side of the head or something, to get them more on the ball…

The singing, acting, and other non-sound-related production qualities in Jonah, however, are the best in the series (the absence of Summer Naomi Smart, notwithstanding).  I’m not sure the filmmakers came up with enough material to justify the longer run-time, however — the material in the film already seems stretched in places.  Many of the interludes between Jonah’s story featuring Chloe and her father in the “real world” consist of nothing more than time-padding narration.  (The father saying, “Now let’s check back in with Jonah as he falls to the bottom of the sea”, for example…as if we really needed a narrator to describe the scene that we were just about to see in the first place.)

Regardless, fans of the Liken series will enjoy Jonah And The Great Fish as much as the other films in the series.

My Grade: B

Joseph Smith And The Golden PlatesJoseph Smith And The Golden Plates

Joseph Smith and the Golden Plates is a faithful biography of the LDS founder and prophet, focusing narrowly on the years between 1826 and 1830 — the translation of the Book of Mormon and the founding of what would become The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.   Director (and festival founder) Christian Vuissa’s sincerity and commitment to LDS film is unimpeachable, and like his other films (One Good ManThe Errand of Angels), this (in Vuissa’s own words) “human and identifiable”  portrait of Joseph Smith as a young man will probably be appreciated by most LDS viewers.

However, I found it dreadfully slow and I can’t give Vuissa a pass on execution here, no matter the good intentions.

(Full review and analysis will be forthcoming…but here’s a brief summary:)

Vuissa has a *major* “Show Don’t Tell” problem in this film — one of the biggest sins a movie-maker can commit, and only some of which can be excused by a small shooting window and a low budget.  A great many scenes in JSGP consist of movie characters sitting around a table telling other characters about things that happened off-screen…when the whole purpose of filming a motion picture in the first place is to show us those “things” directly.

  • Joseph sits around a table telling his family how he was attacked and had to fight off some shadowy assailants while trying to get the plates.  That sounds like a dramatic, tension-filled experience.  Why aren’t we *seeing* that, instead of hearing Joseph retell it?
  • Martin Harris sits around a table describing how he took the manuscript for the Book of Lehi home and then his wife said *this* and a friend came over and said *that*, and then Martin did *this* and so on…  Why aren’t we *seeing* that dramatized instead?
  • The three witnesses to the Book of Mormon sit around a table and describe praying together, and then Martin Harris feeling unworthy and leaving the group, and then the others seeing an angel and the plates, and so on.  Again, why are we *hearing* about this instead of seeing it?

This lack of action makes the film way too “talky”, not helped by the constant use of a slow, “spiritual” monotone for dialogue across all characters that makes scenes drag even more.  Joseph Smith himself is well-cast and (when he’s allowed to) effectively shows the youthful exuberance and emotion that was a defining characteristic of the historical Joseph.  However, he’s also forced into the “spiritual” monotone for much of the film as well.  Combined together this makes the movie about Joseph Smith fairly dull…one of the last things a movie about a dynamic and interesting character such as Joseph Smith should be.

The target audience for the film is also an open question.  Many characters and important details are mentioned but not introduced or explained to make sense to non-member viewers unfamiliar with the historical material, so the likelihood this is going to attract a non-member audience curious about Joseph Smith is minimal.  However, the by-the-numbers approach to Joseph Smith’s life story with zero surprises isn’t going to teach faithful Church members anything they didn’t already know from Sunday School.  Who is supposed to watch this, then, and what should they be getting out of it?

I suspect LDS audiences won’t really care about any of the above — it’s a Joseph Smith movie, after all. It’s beyond criticism. So be it: Joseph Smith & The Golden Plates is a well-produced, respectful portrait of Joseph Smith as a young man and may appeal to non-discriminating LDS audiences looking for Sunday School-level re-tellings of faithful Church history. However, from a movie perspective it has a lot to be desired, and is far from the definitive film on Joseph Smith’s life.

My Grade: B-

  • Adam K. K. Figueira

    Interesting, Kevin. I didn’t get to attend much of the festival this year, so I’m glad you did. Your first three reviews surprised me pleasantly. I didn’t know what to expect of My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, but had low expectations as I’ve not seen an LDS comedy that I really cared much for. A documentary with the same branding as the Singles Ward franchise couldn’t have been less appealing, so I’m glad to hear it’s more than what I feared it would be. I’ve had the soundtrack to Jonah for a year and have enjoyed listening to the music with my kids, who are big Liken fans, so I’m also glad to hear that the film turned out pretty well.
    As far as Christian’s new film, the things you point to are the problems I was worried it would have, though I didn’t predict that it would be so major. I have enormous respect for Christian as a person and a filmmaker, but I would say he is somewhat prone to the weaknesses you describe.
    Thanks for keeping on top of this. I look forward to your extended reviews.

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  • Bryan

    FYI, I just saw “My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend” is already available to Watch Instantly on Netflix. I may have to check it out: