LDS Film Festival 2012: Day 2

Brief reports from Day 2 of the 2012 LDS Film Festival

The Letter Writer

Written / Directed by:  Christian Vuissa

The Letter Writer is both an old and new film for writer / director Christian Vuissa (The Errand of Angels, One Good Man).  In 2006, he created a short 12-minute film about an old man who writes letters to inspire others, and in 2011 has expanded it to a full-length feature, using the same actors.

Vuissa has been accused by some (…okay, me) of oversimplifying complex material to create highly idealistic movies that are just a tad detached from reality.  However, since The Letter Writer is fundamentally such a simple story to begin with, it plays more to Vuissa’s strengths.  As a result, The Letter Writer is arguably his best and most effective film.  (Your mileage may vary, naturally.)

Maggy is a young teen who lives with her divorced mother, and whose only interests are singing in her rock band and hanging out with her guitarist boyfriend. One day she receives a letter from an unknown writer who seems to know her personally (“I’ve been meaning to write to you for a long time. Ever since you were young I knew you were destined to accomplish great things.”)  Thinking it’s a distant relative, she tracks down the letter writer and finds a nursing home patient named Stanley who has never met her before.  As a hobby, Stanley randomly writes letters with inspiring phrases in the hope of providing a comfort and blessing to someone who needs it.  They strike up a friendship, and as other areas of Maggy’s life start to fall apart, she starts to follow Stanley’s example in finding her own talent to bless others.

The Letter Writer bears many structural resemblances to Christmas Angel: a young girl becoming the “apprentice” to an older man who help random people around them.  Instead of sharing cash and food, however, Stanley shares uplifting thoughts and messages through letters and small cards.  (The film seems to take place in an earlier era — “Forever” stamps notwithstanding — without cellphones, Internet, or modern social media.)

As a premise, writing random notes to people you’ve never met raises some questions:  Doesn’t it cheapen the message to have a note that sounds personal, but written by a stranger with no actual knowledge of your life circumstances?  (Maggy thinks so; she says finding out her “personal” note came from someone who doesn’t know her made the message meaningless.)  Stanley sort of shrugs at the suggestion his positive platitudes may not be that useful.   The question of the ultimate utility of Stanley’s hobby might have been a flaw of the film, except that The Letter Writer isn’t really about letter writing.  Maggy discovers early on that she isn’t capable of maintaining Stanley’s habit…but finds she doesn’t have to.  She has her own talents and opportunities to serve, and takes instead Stanley’s philosophy and outlook on life for herself rather than his hobby.

The Letter Writer is simple and sweet, even with a few melodramatic elements.  (Is there a bald kid next door undergoing chemotherapy whom Maggy gets to visit and inspire in the hospital?  Of course there is!  Is there a tearful conversation with her mom where Maggy shares how much she loves her?  Of course there is!)   Maggy’s unsubtle conversion from singing rock songs to church hymns and easy-listening folk music is a little eye-rolling. (“I haven’t been using my voice for GOOD, and helping people,” she says, after she’s been replaced in her rock band. Because, of course, no one has ever been inspired, edified, or comforted by rock music, aka the music of the DEVIL…)

Regardless, The Letter Writer is simple, heart-warming and non-offensive — a typical Christian Vuissa film, in other words.

My Grade:  B

Stand Strong

Written / Directed by: Amy Kenney

Writer/Director Amy Kenney (and her husband Shawn, who produces) were chronicled earlier by KSL in relation to Christian vs. LDS Films.  The Kenneys seek to create films that appeal to all religious demographics, and Stand Strong is their attempt to create a timely message about financial and lifestyle management using “God’s laws”.

Matt and Tara Webster are a upper-middle-class couple living in Utah Valley with three kids.  Everything is going great professionally and socially with a nice house, upscale friends, and lots of “toys”, until one day things start to fall apart.  Their adjustable-rate mortgage adjusts and they can’t afford the house payments.  Their “toys” are repossessed.  The economy is tight so there are layoffs at work.  Broke and humiliated, Matt and family end up living in his brother’s basement while they attempt to put their life back together.  His brother encourages them to shape their lives after True Principles: being thrifty and wise with money, as well as living the Lord’s gospel plan for families as defined in the Bible.

Stand Strong is successful in being generically Christian, even though the characters are still pretty obviously LDS.  (Food storage, LDS “prayer-speak”, and reading scriptures from the LDS quad — complete with the standard footnotes — are a giveaway, even though only Bible verses are quoted in the film.)  Stand Strong has a meaningful message about how “the most important things in life aren’t things” and has its heart in the right place.

However, Stand Strong is a film that’s VERY preachy — written like a Sunday School object lesson without subtlety or nuance, rather than a character-driven drama.  The family members in Stand Strong are archetypes rather than real people (Read the character descriptions on the website and you can get a feel how each family member has been condensed into a one sentence description that represents their persona in the film)  The dialogue is on-the-nose, explaining in direct terms what happening and what lesson the audience is supposed to be getting.   Each Webster family member gets at least one “speech” to review with the audience about what they’ve learned.  At no time does it sound like what an actual family would say to one another.

Does that matter if the content of the film still provides a good message?  If you treat the film as a “lesson” — something to show and discuss in a Family Home Evening or other setting — Stand Strong is servicable.  As a meaningful and compelling film, the lack of artistry hurts.

Stand Strong is also ultra-orthodox in its view of family roles, which may alienate audiences who don’t share the filmmakers’ assumptions.   The father is intended to “preside, provide, and protect” in all things.  When the Websters face severe financial trouble, there’s no discussion whatsoever of Tara, the mom, working outside the home to help them dig out of their hole.  The 18-year-old son Brendan is encouraged to develop his talents and help his father with his business; however, his 16-year-old sister — notably — is not.  The film gives her no talents or skills at all, in fact, and implies her role in the family is not to help overcome their current challenges, but apparently to wait for marriage.  (In a strangely creepy scene framed like a marriage proposal, the dad gives his daughter a ring to represent his role as her father and patriarch until her future husband replaces it with a ring of his own.)   Stand Strong also provides a valentine to home schooling, with the strong implication that any mother who loves her children should be home-schooling them rather than (selfishly) sending them off for someone else to teach.  (“I don’t want to miss another moment of my kid’s childhood!”)  The film shares scriptures from Proverbs 31 and the New Testament as support, but it is still debatable whether they justify such strident conclusions about the Right Way to live as a family.

The moral about financial management and keeping priorities straight is a timely message (even if the financial advice is just a variation of this SNL skit).  However, the lack of realistic characters and constant preaching make Stand Strong more tedious than it should be.  (Who would have thought Christian Vuissa’s film would have been the most nuanced of the pair?)  The Kenneys have potential as effective filmmakers, I just hope next time they spend more effort creating a compelling story and realistic characters to go with their gospel-oriented message.

My Grade:  C+