Michael Flynn has been involved with LDS filmmaking as an actor, writer, producer for several decades now. (His previous work includes The Dance, The Best Two Years, and many Church-produced films.) It’s no surprise, then, that his “debut” directorial effort Midway to Heaven (from the novel by Dean Hughes) is more polished and professional than films from more veteran directors.
Midway to Heaven has a good mix of humorous and emotional elements that provides a solid (if inessential) entertainment experience. It’s not particularly deep, and doesn’t break any new ground in terms of drama, romance, or insightful commentary on life, love, and spiritual philosophy, but good performances all around and witty dialogue make this one of the better LDS releases in recent years. (Admittedly, a small pool…)
Ned Stevens is a 43-year-old widower whose only company is his dog and the occasional visit from Liz, his college-age daughter. It’s been three years since his wife’s death and Ned hasn’t really gotten over it (not helped by the fact he retired early and literally has nothing to do each day when he gets up in the morning…) His fragile emotional state is exemplified by his tendency to talk to his wife’s “spirit” on a regular basis — although even *she* is trying to encourage him to get on with his life.
One bright spot for Ned might be when he takes the dog for a walk and runs into Carol, his young and attractive neighbor. Carol, the type of woman who wears full make-up even while jogging, is very forward in wanting to start something serious. However, Ned’s obviously in no shape to start a new relationship. (…right?)
One day, Liz brings home a serious boyfriend for the first time, and Ned is shaken out of his stupor. David, the new guy (Kirby Heyborne — The RM, Saints and Soldiers) is smart, talented…annoyingly perfect, in fact. Ned can’t allow his daughter to ‘grow up’ and leave him even more alone than he already is, can he? Obviously, their relationship must be sabotaged. Or perhaps David and Liz will help Ned join them in moving forward with life…whether he’s ready for it or not.
LDS films are not typically “director’s mediums” — requiring complex shots, correlation of masses of extras, and/or CGI sequences. However, Midway To Heaven shows how directors who know what they are doing can influence a finished product, even one based on existing literary material. Michael Flynn cultivates good performances from the actors, keeps the pacing brisk, constructs scenes that are well-conceived without any superfluous material, and — despite the simplicity of the story — finds ways to work some creative camera angles and movements that augment the film experience without being too showy.
His efforts are helped by a solid lead performance from Curt Doussett who shows excellent comic timing in handling the up-tempo dialogue and non-verbal comedic elements. There’s a lot of witty material here — Midway to Heaven is probably the funniest LDS movie since The RM — and is smart about comedy without stooping to dumb, demeaning jokes, or physical slapstick to garner a laugh. (One scene set in a bar involving mistaken identity is the film’s one exception — a style of comedy that’s more over-the-top and out of place than everything else).
Unlike The RM, Flynn also manages to mix the lighter comedic and romantic elements with more serious, poignant moments without throwing the movie’s tone out of whack. Ned’s character serves as both the emotional center of the film and — as he tries feebly to break up his daughter’s relationship — the “villain” as well. Viewers can laugh as he tries (unsuccessfully) to undermine everyone else’s happiness, while emphasizing with his tough situation and fragile emotional state.
Midway to Heaven is a solid film that audiences will enjoy, whether they’ve read the book or not. Let’s look of a couple of content issues more in-depth. (Note that I have not read the book, which may share these same issues):
Spirituality and Eternal Marriage
Midway to Heaven’s LDS bonafides aren’t in question — it is established early on that all the main characters are LDS with multiple mentions of missions, Sunday School, visiting teaching, Fast Sunday, and other distinctly Mormon elements. However, LDS theology and philosophy is surprisingly absent, as if the characters were purely cultural Mormons only, without spiritual beliefs of any kind.
Naturally, non-LDS have to face the untimely death of a spouse and the stress of jumping back into the dating scene again just as LDS do. However, LDS theology provides a unique perspective regarding eternal marriage and families — something especially relevant to widows and widowers — and this element is completely missing from Midway To Heaven. A surprising omission given the effort to establish Ned and the others as Mormon.
It’s unclear whether we’re supposed to interpret the presence of Kate, Ned’s late wife, as simply a manifestation of his subconscious to ease his loneliness, or as her literal spirit visiting him from beyond (I suspect the former), however Ned’s conversations with his wife’s “spirit” show no indication that Ned believes he will see Kate again in the next life. A little inexplicable, if he and Kate were temple-sealed as the LDS norm — the promise of eternity should be forefront in his mind. Having an eternal perspective toward marriage would also naturally have a direct impact on Ned’s willingness to enter into a new, romantic relationship with Carol, but there’s no sign of this in any of the conversations with his wife or daughter.
“You’re holding on to something you can’t have,” Kate’s “spirit” says to her husband as she encourages him to start dating again — showing, again, no hint that either of them has any notion of being together again in the future. Even if it is just Ned’s subconscious speaking, it seems unlikely that an LDS wife in spirit form would be quite so aggressive in encouraging her widower husband to start dating another LDS women (“What about Brenda? She’s nice! What about Carol? She’s pretty!”) if their eternal sealing was a real element in their relationship.
If LDS philosophy was not going to influence the characters’ approaches to life, love, and marriage, then there’s no point to having the characters be LDS at all. All of the references to cultural Mormonisms then only serve to make the film inaccessible to non-member viewers — a mistake when the story elements don’t justify that kind of narrowness.
The “Other Woman” Problem
The weak link in the story — and the movie’s other major flaw — is Carol, the attractive neighbor who everyone knows from the first reel is destined to become Ned’s new love interest. Her part is well-acted — like the rest of the cast, Michelle Money does good work — but Carol is the least developed (and broadly drawn) character in the film.
Ned is the obvious protagonist, and as viewers we want things to work out for him in the end. However, for the romantic elements to work, we also need someone worthy of Ned’s attention on the other side. For most of the film, Carol is simply shown in the background, waiting for Ned to get over his issues and get together with her. Even when she’s more involved in the “action”, we’re still unsure why Ned needs to be with *her*, rather than just with *someone*. Ned may really need a new girlfriend and to be social again, but Carol seems to be simply the only person available.
What are Carol’s positive qualities? According to Liz (and Kate’s “spirit”) the reason Ned should get together with Carol is because…she’s pretty. When we meet Carol, we see that she’s pretty and…well, she’s pretty. That can’t be the only criteria Ned should be looking for in a new relationship, can it?
Ned does not seem hard up for potential suitors — he complains, in fact, about many neighborhood women being like “vultures” in chasing after one of the only available single (and rich) men in the area. (“My refrigerator is full of cassoroles, each with a marriage proposal attached.”)
So, what makes Carol any different? She’s direct about wanting a serious relationship with Ned, but gives no indication that she’s interested in him other than for the same reasons: he’s handsome, rich, and available. Relationships have been built on less, of course, but her looks and his availability (and money) seem like fairly superficial reasons for a relationship. That doesn’t mean they won’t be happy in the end as they build towards something more substantial, but the movie itself never gets there. Shouldn’t the audience have a stronger reason to cheer for them to get together at the end?
This would be less of an issue if it weren’t for Kate, Ned’s late wife, being an active character in the movie. Despite being dead, Kate has more screen-time than Carol, and shares a strong romantic chemistry with Ned that Carol clearly cannot match.
You might argue that comparing a twenty-year-long intimate relationship to a casual acquaintance from the neighborhood is an unfair comparison — *of course* Ned and Kate have better romantic chemistry together. Ned himself would obviously prefer to be with Kate rather than Carol any day of the week — in fact, learning how to let go of her is his primary challenge in the film. Since that’s not an option, Ned may have to take whatever he can get and move forward. Maybe “chemistry” doesn’t matter.
It does matter, though, when there’s no obvious way in which Carol provides an adequate replacement for Kate. Flynn constructs several sequences where we see photographs and home video of Ned and Kate being together in happier times. Creating the backdrop for their marriage helps effectively establish Ned’s loss and the emotional struggle he’s going through. However, when Carol is around, there is very little that suggests Ned and Carol are actually a good match for each other and have the potential to develop the same sort of intimate twenty year marriage that Ned had before.
Considering the primary thrust of the film concerns Ned getting out of his grief-induced stupor and into the social scene again, it’s surprising that Midway To Heaven seems to aim at building Ned and Carol’s relationship on such superficial qualities rather than common interests or personal compatibility.
Both of the above items weaken Midway To Heaven from a story perspective, but it is still an entertaining movie that families will enjoy, and a successful debut for an important figure in LDS filmmaking.
Final Grade: B+