LDS Film Criticism (Part 3): How To Review An LDS Film

Continuing from Part 1 and Part 2:  if we admit that LDS film (like any artistic medium) needs “criticism” in principle, how do you do it in practice?  What’s a fair point of criticism and what isn’t?  Here’s how I approach it…

I’m not a professional “movie critic”, nor even a professional writer.  I started writing LDS film reviews in 2004 almost by accident, because:

  1. I’m LDS
  2. I liked movies
  3. I had a LDS-centered blog
  4. I had opinions on the LDS films I had seen
  5. and…well, no one else was writing about it anywhere.

Occasionally there would be articles from local SLC newspaper critics about LDS films that had a theatrical release, but otherwise there wasn’t a lot of writing about LDS films from an informational (or analytical) perspective.  As a prospective screen-writer, and a movie fan, I naturally hoped to see good LDS films that were also good films without qualification.  For any good LDS films out there, I wanted to write about them and let the small handful of people who also cared about LDS film know about then.  If they weren’t good films, then I wanted to look at the reasons why, and what we could learn from them.

In that context, let’s look at what I consider to be fair criticisms and unfair criticisms:

NOT FAIR:  Low budget and production values.

In high school, I participated in a performance of the musical South Pacific.  After the performance, a family member commented that he was “disappointed” because “all the adult characters just looked like high school students”.

Of course, they did — they *were* high school students.

In a vacuum you would like the adult characters in a musical to look like adults to add to the suspension of disbelief.  However, this was a high school production — the characters were always going to look like high school students regardless of how well they performed.  How fair a criticism is that, really?

It’s a given that LDS films will not have the same budget and resources that other mainstream films (or even many independent films) have.  As such, LDS films won’t be expected to have fancy title or credit sequences or other polished special effects as other films, so is “it looks like a low budget film” really that fair a complaint?   In a vacuum, you want a film to be as modern and polished as possible.  However, like those high school productions, at some point you have to accept it for what it is and look beyond the comparisons to movies from bigger-pocketed studios.  When I discuss LDS film, I generally won’t comment on anything related to a low budget since that’s something filmmakers have little control over.

(Production issues that could have been fixed regardless of budget are fair game:  poor sound mixing in the Esther or Jonah films, for example, or the Book of Mormon Movie‘s continuity problems with props.)

The counter-argument to this is that under the current system a ticket (or DVD) for an LDS film costs the same amount as any summer blockbuster with a $200 million budget, thus they *should* be compared directly against each other since they are in competition for the same household dollars (and hours of one’s time).  I understand that to an audience member considering which movie to see or rent, this is true — but to a ‘reviewer’ considering each film independently this should be irrelevant.

FAIR: Writing.

Writing is the one element of filmmaking that should be immune to low budgets.  Strong writing in any film can overcome the lack of fancy CGI, and often inexperienced actors and camera work as well.

Judging good writing is a little like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous statement on pornography, that it’s hard to define exactly but you generally know it when you see it.  On a basic level: if the film is a comedy, is it funny?  If it’s a romance, is it…romantic?   Do the lead characters have meaningful romantic chemistry together?  If it’s a drama, is there a strong sense of dramatic tension as the plot unfolds?  Regardless of genre, are we invested in the characters as they attempt to accomplish their own personal goals within the plot?

Good films — even comedies — will have some kind of struggle or tension that drives the plot.  The hero or heroine should have a need — something they are seeking after desperately, but which is kept from them throughout the film until the end.  This need becomes the audience’s focal point in following and identifying with the characters through their trials and journeys.

In Saints & Soldiers, a small band of Allied soldiers *needs* to cross enemy lines within a short period of time to deliver valuable information.  In Return With Honor, an RM has a near-death experience and *needs* to baptize his non-member mother before his 60-day time limit expires.  In Passage to Zarahemla, a young girl *needs* to find her lost father and save her family from a band of ancient barbarians.  In Anxiously Engaged, the main character *needs* to find a match for his future sister-in-law so he can marry the girl he loves.

Films don’t necessarily need high stakes — matters of life and death — as even films where the protagonists’ only goal is to find love and romantic fulfillness with a nice girl or guy is a perfectly valid “struggle” to garner the audience’s support.

Interestingly, LDS culture presents a problem here:  words like “struggle”, “conflict”, “drama”, or “tension” can strike a negative chord for LDS, much the same way the word “criticism” does.  Many LDS writers seem to shy away from showing true “conflict” in their stories, especially within LDS characters or families, presumably because of the same gospel ideal to avoid contention and conflict.  Some writers seem to be hesitant to show an LDS husband and wife arguing with each other as part of the plot because…well, LDS husbands and wives shouldn’t be arguing with each other, I guess.

This presents a paradox, as good stories need “struggle” and “drama” to drive the narrative.  Characters who get along with everyone and never have trials or challenges just aren’t interesting as subjects of a film.  How can we be invested in a character who already has everything they want and isn’t seeking for anything?

In God’s Army, Elder Allen struggles with his testimony and his reason for being a missionary in the first place — something that’s out of the comfort zone of many LDS viewers who don’t like putting “struggle” and “testimony” together in a sentence.  However, without this struggle, what’s the point of the film?  If the main character is a missionary who never struggles with a testimony and never grows as a person (*cough* The Other Side of Heaven) — why are we watching it?  When God’s Army ends, Elder Allen has overcome his doubts and become a strong missionary — certainly a “happy ending” from an LDS perspective, but one impossible to achieve without having had the struggles in the middle.  (The short film Money Or Mission has a similar arc.)

On the other hand, Aaron, the main character in One Good Man starts the movie with a strong testimony that never wavers, and a good relationship with his family and friends.  At the end of the movie, he’s…a good man who has a strong testimony and good relationships with his family and friends.  His biggest “trial” is considering whether to leave his well-paid, upper-management job and start his own company.  I’d love to be that person in real-life — wouldn’t you? — but as the main character in a movie, where’s the drama?  When the end credits roll, what has he learned or overcome during the film’s running time?  Why should we care about a character who is exactly the same at the end as he was at the beginning and has nothing he *needs* to find or accomplish in the middle?

Obviously, it’s not a one-or-the-other issue:  many LDS writers have found ways to create effective dramatic tension within a faithful LDS context without needing material that’s considered “edgy” or overly dark.  However, that dramatic tension needs to come from somewhere.  Whether LDS filmmakers stay comfortably within the LDS box or venture outside of it, I want the screenwriter to give me a reason to care about the characters and what they are trying to accomplish.  I want the sense that a character has genuinely achieved something at the end and become a different person because of it.

NOT FAIR:  Premise

Many movies — especially science-fiction ones — have premises that are fantastical in nature and by modern standards of science and knowledge could be considered “impossible” or “unrealistic”.  True science fiction will emphasize the “science” above the “fiction”, but will often feature narrative elements like faster-than-light travel (or time travel) that are likely not at all possible scientifically, even in the future.  However, criticizing a movie with a time travel plot because “time travel simply is not possible” is not very useful.  The time travel is part of the premise — something you just accept as part of the movie’s universe.

Movies often feature things that are “unrealistic”, but we often go to movies to avoid “realism” in the first place.  The important part isn’t the veracity of the movie universe compared to real life, only that the movie supports that universe consistently.  When a movie is inconsistent or unrealistic within its own universe, this is a plot hole — which are fair game for criticism (in fact, many movie fans enjoy finding plot holes in films they love).  The trick is to differentiate between what’s part of the premise and what’s a true plot hole.

Premise: In the 2009 Star Trek reboot, we have a variety of “unrealistic” technologies — time travel, transporters that beam matter millions of miles away and reconstruct it perfectly, faster-than-light warp drives, and miniature black holes.

Plot Hole: In Star Trek, transporter capabilities are notoriously inconsistent according to plot demands.  Scotty and Kirk are able to transport themselves into a starship travelling at warp speed millions of miles away without problems, but can’t beam down to the Romulan drill platform because…“the drill is turned on”, and later can’t beam Spock’s family off of the dying planet Vulcan because…“they’re in a cave” (?).

Premise: In the second Harry Potter movie, Ron’s family has a magic car that drives itself.  How does it work?  Who knows?  It’s “magic”!

Plot Hole: The magic car appears out of nowhere and saves Harry and Ron from the spiders’ den when they didn’t take the car to the spiders’ den in the first place.  How did it know they were there?  (Sigh…I know:  “It’s magic!”))

Premise: In the Star Wars series, individuals can use “The Force” to move objects with their mind and perform other super-human feats.

Plot Hole: When Luke asks Leia about her mother in Return of the Jedi, she responses with a few faint memories — which she wouldn’t have had at all according to Star Wars Episode III, as her mother dies during childbirth.

(Also, at the end of Episode III, what exactly is Yoda and Obi-Wan’s plan?  There are two of them and only two Sith — with one seriously wounded — yet the two of them give up the fight entirely and hide themselves in exile, seemingly depending on the son of Skywalker to grow up and defeat the empire.  And if this WAS the plan [to use Luke to defeat the Empire], why does Obi-Wan wait until Luke grows up and seeks HIM out to start Luke’s training as a Jedi when, according to the accepted mythology within the film, he’s far too old at that point.)

Within LDS film there are occasionally some “sci-fi / fantasy” elements that we just accept as part of the premise.  In Passage to Zarahemla, for example, there is a magic portal that connects two times centuries apart.  How did the portal appear?  How are the people who cross the portal able to speak the language on the other side?  Fair questions, but things you just accept as part of the premise of the film.  In You’re So Cupid, the main characters are daughters of Cupid himself and use their magical powers to play matchmaker with their school-mates.  “Unrealistic”?  Doesn’t matter — it’s part of the premise.

Unrealistic premises do not need to be fantastical in nature.  A couple of LDS films — Suits On The Loose, and Take A Chance — deal with two individuals pretending to be people they are not for a great length of time.  In real life, neither of these situations would be even remotely plausible, but because that’s the premise, that’s irrelevant.  What’s important is that the film set up that premise and then defend it through smart writing.     Many romantic comedies pair a couple with completely different personalities and backgrounds together.  In real life, that couple would more likely than not date briefly and then break up…but that’s not a very interesting “romance”, right?  We can accept the odd matching as a premise — just defend it with smart acting and dialogue to give the audience a sense that this couple would actually succeed in the context of the movie’s universe.  As Roger Ebert often says, what matters isn’t what a film is about, but how it is about it.

FAIR:  Approaches to spirituality.

An “LDS film” can be any film that has some LDS connection, and does not necessarily need to include any religious or spiritual elements within the film itself (or make them the primary focus even if they are present).

In a quick survey of the LDS films I’ve reviewed so far:  Excluding the six movies based on scripture or Church history — different animals entirely — we have 19 films with a spiritual component that I consider a major part of the film, 16 films that feature LDS characters but little to no LDS philosophy or spirituality (this can include films with LDS characters that present universal principles like getting along with others or avoiding judgment, for example, where the LDS elements are tangential), and seven that have no LDS characters or content whatsoever.

Each of those categories contains films I’ve judged to be good and bad, so it’s not fair to say one category is inherently better than another.  However, if the film contains a spiritual component, this is certainly going to be a primary focus of my analysis.

Basic questions to ask:  Is the spiritual content and principles consistent with the LDS context (if there is one) — do characters presented as LDS in the film act and react believably compared to LDS in real life?  Does the film present a distinctly LDS message, theme, or moral?  If so, does it support that theme adequately through the film’s content, or does the film depend on an LDS audience to accept it without support?

(Return With Honor, for example, presents as its narrative the idea that one of the main characters *needs* to get baptized and accept the gospel, without any explanation within the film itself as to why this is the case.  LDS audiences won’t have a problem accepting this notion, obviously, but wouldn’t a stronger film try to make this case within the context of the film without depending entirely on an LDS audience filling in the blanks?).

LDS film in the past decade has presented a wide variety of approaches to spirituality.  Some films have deep spiritual thoughts and questions as its primary theme (God’s Army, States of Grace), and others use LDS theology and culture as springboards for jokes (The Singles Ward, The RM), while also including some spiritual lessons.

Other films are more circumspect:  The Dance, for example, has LDS characters but does not focus on LDS spirituality — instead, it is about the trials of love and relationships during various stages of life that are common to people of all faiths.  In that case, the lack of any outright LDS spirituality is irrelevant to the theme.  In other cases (Anxiously Engaged, Midway To Heaven) we have LDS characters but no LDS spirituality or philosophy within the plot and dialogue.  Both are decent films, but one can still ask:  why have LDS characters at all if they are not going to approach life with recognizably LDS philosophies?

It doesn’t matter if a “LDS film” has no outright religious content (as long as the content it does have is compelling and entertaining) but when it does, I’m certainly going to narrow in on it and look at what the film is trying to say about things of the spirit and how it says it.

While LDS content isn’t necessary — and by its very existence serves to narrow the target audience considerably — we need to ask the question:  why does LDS film exist if not to contain specifically LDS content?

If LDS films systematically avoid LDS characters, philosophy, or spirituality — presumably to avoid alienating any non-LDS audience — then arguably what’s the point of creating LDS films at all?   I expect that some core subset of LDS filmmakers will (and should) approach spirituality in film from an LDS perspective simply because that is the most unique element they have to offer — a perspective that even the A-list Hollywood directors and screenwriters won’t be able to match.  Even if it does end up narrowing the target audience significantly, isn’t that what the purpose of “LDS Film” should be: an expression of distinctly LDS thoughts and values?