LDS Film Festival 2014: Feature Film Report (Part 2)

Notes from other feature films from the 2014 LDS Film Festival



Written / Directed by Marco Lui

Visionary Italian director Marco Lui (The Book of Life, Dr Smith & The Fantastic Castle) returns with Cripta, a new feature film that’s also available on Lui’s website for download.  Cripta — Italian for ‘encrypt’ — is a tale of six students who work together online to solve a ‘mystery’ related to their missing archaeology professor.

Like his previous films, Cripta showcases Lui’s creative and original visual style with impressive camera work and visual effects, especially given the obvious budget constraints.  Cripta is also (fortunately) in Italian with English subtitles, rather than the poor dubbing that crippled his previous film.  Now viewers can enjoy the lyrical sounds of the Italian language while still following along with the subtitles (numerous spelling and grammatical errors notwithstanding).

And…we’re done with the positive things about the film.  (*sigh*)

Lui has admirably never been shy about adding Mormon doctrine and theology to his films.  Like The Book of Life, Cripta quotes from scripture liberally, including the Bible, Book of Mormon, Doctrine & Covenants, and even the LDS Bible Dictionary.  Cripta discusses the power of scripture, the Atonement, and the need for baptism, including baptism for the dead.

That’s all fine, but what kept The Book of Life from becoming a dull Sunday School lesson was tying the doctrinal content to a compelling story with interesting characters.  Cripta is a mess because it has neither.  The six students are completely interchangeable, and their dialogue becomes nothing more than a pointless screenwriter’s trick to spout exposition through a variety of voices.  Even Lui’s trademark humor and wit are absent.

Cripta has the students work through various challenges related to the intricacies of the Hebrew word for “truth” and LDS doctrine about salvation and baptism. The problem is, without a story attached, there’s no point.   The doctrinal discussions don’t even pass President Boyd K. Packer’s “And therefore, what?” test.  There’s a tidbit or two that may be interesting, like the murderer Barabbas who was chosen to be freed in Pilate’s court instead of Christ also having the first name “Jesus” with his name meaning “Son of the Father”.  But, so what?  There’s still no movie here.

Most aggravating of all, after the students’ online quest to discover nothing in particular has tried our patience enough, Lui ends the film with their professor giving a ten minute lecture about baptism for the dead as the students (and audience) sit there and listen.  That last mind-numbing section is what drops Cripta from “a disappointing mess” to “a complete disaster”.

Featuring Mormon doctrine in a film isn’t the problem, hearing a 80 minute Sunday school lecture with no insight or entertainment value is.  This is a waste of a genuinely talented filmmaker.  Back to the drawing board, please!

My Grade: D

uphillbattleUphill Battle

Written/Directed by Amy Kenney

Following a painful divorce, Erica Stratton has adjusted to being an independent professional and single mom to her two teens.  She maintains that “I don’t date” and that “men are liars” up until Michael shows up, who shares her faith in God and her passion for bicycling.  Is she capable of a new relationship after the disaster of her first marriage?

Uphill Battle is written and directed by Amy Kenney from Stand Strong (and features most of the same actors).  The first half is a decent, if not original, story about The Wronged Woman Who Must Learn To Love Again, while trying to communicate with her two teenagers.   Unlike Stand Strong which constantly preached to you about the spiritual lessons you were supposed to be learning, Uphill Battle is more understated initially.  Even while she struggles as a single mom jumping back into the dating scene, Erica’s simple faith gives her hope things are going to work out.

(Naturally, her “simple” faith manifests itself with several directly answered prayers, a miraculous rescue from a bike accident without injury, and even the ol’ drop-your-scriptures-and-have-them-open-to-something-meaningful trick.  But that’s par for the course in a “faith-promoting” movie, so we’ll just go with it.)

Halfway through, there’s still an undercurrent of “Men are Pigs, Women are AWESOME!” like something you’d see on the Lifetime Channel, especially with flashbacks showing Erica’s ex-husband to be an abusive jerk without nuance.   But we can deal with that.

The second half, however…  (Spoilers from here on, if it matters)  The first warning alarm sounds when Michael first brings up religion with Erica after they’ve started dating.  He admits that he had been stalking her for a while and that God “arranged” for them to meet.  (He doesn’t literally say, “An angel of the Lord appeared to me and said that we are destined to be together”, but close…)

Erica is the independent woman who’s already had a disastrous divorce, remember.    Does she (a) think critically about this new development and discuss with Michael how it’s hard for her to trust others so let’s take it slow and see what happens?  Or perhaps (b) “Gee, what you just said is actually kind of creepy…”?

None of the above.  Apparently her faith in God’s plan is stronger than her emotional baggage as He has “miraculously” provided her a Good Man with whom she can jump into a relationship without doubt.   (And Michael is truly a Good Man, although are we supposed to believe Erica didn’t pray about and have good feelings for her first husband once upon a time?)

However, we barely have time to process this development when the film jumps into its primary crisis:  turns out Erica’s ex wasn’t an abusive jerk after all, he was just “addicted” to internet pornography. Then Erica discovers her own teenage son is “addicted” to pornography.  And when she confides in Michael her problems, he admits that he used to be “addicted” to pornography also, before overcoming it through his faith in God.

There are numerous problems here.  One: Having 75% of the male characters in the movie suffer from pornography “addiction” at one time or another strains credibility from the beginning.  (The one exception is Erica’s daughter’s boyfriend, who perhaps just hasn’t been caught yet.)

Two: the movie is running with a very loose definition of “addicted”, which unfortunately is common in Church circles.

Addictions are serious business.  Addictions are life-altering and often life-threatening.  However, doing something regularly is not an “addiction”, it’s a “habit”.  Doing something regularly and liking it isn’t an “addiction” either.  Doing something regularly and liking it, and then feeling guilty about liking it still doesn’t make it an “addiction”, although the resulting “shame spiral” can often lead to other serious psychological problems.

Let’s quote from a sensible voice on the subject, LDS therapist Natasha Helfer Parker:

“Bad” behavior does not always translate into what would be deemed an “addiction.” Just because a person looks at pornography or masturbates once in a while, has a drink every now and then, plays a few midnight games on the computer or goes on a spending spree, does not mean this person is “addicted.” This is not to minimize unhealthy behavior which can cause legitimate issues within meaningful relationships. However, for a behavior to be considered an addiction there are certain diagnostic criteria that need to be met.

Yet in Uphill Battle‘s world, porn addiction is unbelievably common and responsible for basically every family problem any character faces.

This isn’t to say “pornography addiction” doesn’t exist.  One can be addicted to anything, from ice cream to playing World of Warcraft if you do it often enough compulsively and it becomes disruptive to other normal functioning activities.

However, neither Erica’s ex nor her son fit this pattern.  (How would her ex have the time for a normal job and/or finding another woman to have an affair with in the first place if he’s “addicted” to anything?)

Furthermore, by presenting “pornography addiction” as the cause of her ex-husband’s poor behavior, the film is basically taking him off the hook.  It’s now not a naturally controlling and domineering personality that causes him to become insulting and abusive to Erica (and *gasp* skip church), he was apparently just a good guy corrupted by porn.

No.  He’s an abusive jerk because he’s an abusive jerk.  He watches porn because he wants to.  There’s no “addiction” here.   Don’t pretend that abuse is “caused” by porn.  Don’t make excuses for him that minimizes his own responsibility for his own actions and decisions that other LDS wives in similar situations can grossly misinterpret.

Nor should they be allowed to misinterpret Erica’s son Spencer so-called “addiction” causing him to not clean his room, stay out late with friends, and steal money from his mother’s purse.  (Hint: he’s not buying pornography with the money, or watching it with his friends.)  Even in the movie’s fictional universe, Spencer only has a ‘habit’.  One that makes him feel guilty, which in classic “shame spiral” fashion makes him feel wicked and unworthy.   But he’s not “addicted”.

Openly and effectively addressing the “pornography problem” (leaving the definition of “addiction” aside) requires a open discussion of human sexuality as well — a problem in LDS culture where sex is still largely held to be “a sin next to murder” (questionable interpretation of Alma 39 notwithstanding.)  It should not be a surprise that a recent study has shown LDS couples often encounter sexual dysfunction after marriage, given that couples are conditioned before and after marriage never to talk about it.

It’s not that I expected Uphill Battle to have an open discussion of sexual issues (Erica and Michael don’t even kiss until the end credits), but that’s what this particular subject requires.  If the film wasn’t prepared to address this issue appropriately, it should not have been made the central core of the narrative.

Fact:  Porn use in marriage is almost always a symptom of marital problems, not a root cause.

Fact:  Porn use has a greater tie to loneliness than lust.

Fact:  Sexual dysfunction within marriages can contribute to porn “problems” and the Church-encouraged shame and guilt often exacerbate minor problems into major ones.

None of these should be taken as “excuses” for porn, nor reasons to blame the wife instead of the husband.  However, a husband or wife who refuse to discuss sexual issues with their partner at all, whether in terms of needs, feelings, desires, or baggage, invites marital problems to take root and fester, whether or not porn ever becomes involved.  Discussing porn without also discussing human sexuality and human psychology is like discussing drunk driving while refusing to mention alcohol.

We need more honest communication about both porn and sexuality, especially in Church contexts.  But Uphill Battle‘s use of “porn addiction” as a boogeyman responsible for all the world’s problems without addressing how guilt and sexual repression play a role, pushes the discussion in the wrong direction, especially within a culture that’s already too inclined to define addiction as “looking at porn more than once”.  (Often a self-fulfilling prophecy when guilt and self-loathing about being “wicked” are added to the mix.)

In the end, I kind of wish Uphill Battle had just stayed as the Lifetime Channel movie the first half was leading towards.  A ham-fisted and inaccurate approach to a serious and complex issue isn’t going to help anyone dealing with that issue in the real world.

My Grade (considered without the “porn addiction” boogeyman): B-

My Grade (with it): C-