LDS Film Festival 2014 Feature Film Report (Part 1)

Some notes from Day 1 and 2 at the 2014 LDS Film Festival:

Wayward: The Prodigal Son

waywardRobert McMillan has a loving family and a successful business, although he’s secretly dying of leukemia.  After a dispute between his older son Will and his younger son Tyler, Tyler requests “his inheritance” and runs away to Las Vegas.  Things spiral out of control when Tyler gets himself deep in debt to a ruthless gangster.  Can Robert find his son and reconcile his family before either he or his son dies?

The Prodigal Son may be the most recognizable and memorable parable from the Bible after The Good Samaritan.   Older LDS Church members may remember a short Church-produced film about the story from 1990 (now available on YouTube).   As a missionary, that short film was very effective at using a relevant modern context to introduce gospel concepts like repentance and forgiveness to our investigators.   Wayward, from director Rob Diamond (Once Upon A SummerElizabeth’s Gift), wants to do the same thing — show a meaningful spiritual story from a modern perspective.

Good idea, good intentions, bad execution.   The heart of the story is there, and the final inevitable scene with Tyler and his father embracing is as moving as it should be.  However, characterizations from scene to scene are all over the place.  I had no idea what was driving Tyler to flee from his home in the first place (Low self-esteem?  High ambition?) nor what his goal was.  Neither could I understand the dynamics of his relationship with his father or older brother, which seemed to change from scene to scene.

Not helping is an over-the-top gambling + violent bookie subplot and one of the least plausible prostitute characters in movie memory.  (Shouldn’t it be easy to create a realistic modern story of a youth getting involved with drugs or gangs before hitting rock bottom?  Wayward revolves around a million dollar poker game and a shady criminal conspiracy which just distances the story from real-life situations that real LDS wayward youth encounter.)

Also not helping is that the movie skips an important component of the original Prodigal Son story: the older brother’s own journey of repentance and forgiveness.   Will, the older brother here, contributes significantly to family woes through his own poor decisions, but the film never spends the necessary scenes reconciling him with his father or brother.  (Where’s the equivalent scene in Wayward to the 26:04 mark in the earlier short film when the older brother kneels in humble, sincere prayer and asks for help and forgiveness?)

A missed opportunity.  I’ll stick with the original 1990 short film myself.

(Full article and analysis coming next week…)

My Grade: C+

commonchordCommon Chord

Written and Directed by Deric Olsen (with Trevor Carroll)

Kyle is a wannabe musician with a dead-end job in a small town in Canada.  When his girlfriend dies suddenly, he’s faced with being a father to their six-year-old daughter Teagan, although Teagan’s grandfather would rather Kyle just stayed away and left them alone.  Can Kyle “man up” and become the father figure his daughter needs?

Common Chord is well directed, acted, and produced.   It’s biggest problem may be simply that the story is too familiar.  Plenty of indie films have hit the “young listless guy needs to grow up when he becomes a father” angle and Common Chord doesn’t diverge enough from the ‘formula’ to be distinctive.  We know from the beginning how the film is going to progress, from the hero being tempted to follow his dreams but turning back because of a promise to his kid, to the grumpy grandfather who never thought the young man was good enough for his daughter in the first place, but has his heart softened by the end.

However, I liked that the grandfather has enough characterization to show that he’s lonely and hurting as well from the death of his daughter, and he’s not just the “villain” of the piece.  I liked the local minister who also (conveniently) doubles as Kyle’s boss —  someone who loves both men and wants to help them without taking a side.  I also liked newcomer Erin Bourke-Henderson as a very professional social worker that the film wisely doesn’t push too hard as a “romantic interest” for Kyle.

Common Chord is a good film, just without that one original or creative element to push it from ‘good’ to ‘great’.  Unfortunately, I think this one is going to get easily lost and forgotten in the indie film scene after it’s released.

My Grade: B