Christian Vuissa’s film”The Errand of Angels” opens in theaters in Utah and Idaho today. My sister Katherine saw the film when it was screened at the LDS Film Festival (which Vuissa founded) back in January and posted a review for her personal blog. She has kindly agreed to let me republish it here at AMV. Note that the editing and other post-production on the film may have changed for the official release. ~Wm
A wide-eyed sister missionary from Boise arrives in Austria to begin her 18-month-long mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Despite having to make a few cultural adjustments, Sister Taylor meets every challenge with optimism. Her enthusiasm to share the Gospel makes her indomitable, until she finds herself with an abrasive companion whom she doesn’t understand and doesn’t particularly like. This challenge, along with the ordinary vicissitudes of missionary life begin to wear on her, and thus in the process of sharing the Gospel, Sister Taylor finds herself gaining a better understanding of its key precepts: faith, repentance, forgiveness, and charity.
The missionary film is a well-known sub-genre of Mormon film. In fact, some of the most notable and successful films, such as God’s Army, The Best Two Years, and The Other Side of Heaven have fallen within this genre. Even in Mormon films that haven’t been explicitly about missionary work, the missionary element usually makes an appearance.
If the missionary story has been told, why make another missionary movie? In the Q&A following the 5:00 showing of The Errand of Angels Friday night, the director/writer, Christian Vuissa, said that while many films have been made about missionaries, none has told the sister missionary story. The source of Vuissa’s material came originally from a woman named Heidi Johnson who simply wanted to tell the story of her mission. Having no previous experience in script-writing, she decided to make a go at it anyway. The film in its present form is the result of much re-writing by Vuissa, but still retains many of the elements of Johnson’s story.
With that in mind, I’m not entirely certain what makes this film more of a sister missionary film than other missionary films–other than that the protagonist is female and there are more scenes of hugging, crying, giggling, and at least one cat fight. The story has a lot of the predictable missionary moments that seem to be popular in this genre. The scene where Sister Taylor forces herself to eat a dubious-looking meat dish , as well as the scene where she tries to speak with a man on the bus and ends up saying something about a beech tree–these felt like they’d been lifted right out of The Other Side of Heaven.
One of the ways it seems that the director tried to make this a sister missionary film was to eliminate any possible male characters. There are almost no males in the film. We never see the mission president, we only see elders at the very end during the baptism scene, and the one investigator who is male almost always appear with his girlfriend. One of the most interesting aspects of sister missionary life–to me at least–is how sisters negotiate the male-dominated world of missionary work. There are a lot of sister missionary stereotypes that pervade Mormon culture. How do they confront those? These are themes that I would love to see addressed in a Mormon film some time. Perhaps if The Errand of Angels proves successful, we’ll see more sister missionary films in the future?
Another thing that could have improved The Errand of Angels was a little more character development. I was perplexed as to why the passage of time in the film had felt so short–a matter of weeks rather than months. In discussing this with a friend of mine, he made the point that Sister Taylor’s character doesn’t really change much. In pretty much every single scene of the film, she’s just as bubbling with idealism and untempered enthusiasm for missionary work, except for the few moments where she’s fighting with her companion. Sister Taylor experiences vicissitudes–even a difficult challenge–but nothing that fundamentally challenges her faith. There’s no real change.
Along with that criticism, however, I’m going to say “so what?” So, the film isn’t life-changing. So its lack of epic material sadly prevents me from declaring it “the Mormon Inn of the Sixth Happiness.” It is, however, thoroughly engaging. The characters are interesting, the setting is beautiful (I don’t think it’s possible to get a bad shot of Austria), the acting is decent, and the plot holds together well. Additionally, the pleasant soundtrack fits the lilting, genial, and softly contemplative tone of the film. Considering these things, and considering that the film was shot in 15 days with a crew of 10 people on a shoe-string budget, I would say this is a remarkable feat.
Finally, when evaluating a film’s success, I think it’s important to take into account its intended audience. I’m going to have to agree with Gideon Burton that this film will likely be very successful with Mormon audiences. About 1/3 of the sisters in my Relief Society right now are returned sister missionaries, and I’m nearly certain they would receive The Errand of Angels with enthusiasm. Also, I can see this film finding a niche in the Young Women program. When I was in Young Women, it seemed that my leaders often struggled to find engaging representations of female Mormon role models, especially any that were between that notorious teenager-married woman gap. The young men had their missions to focus on, and the young women had a…gap, that would hopefully eventually end in marriage. Perhaps Young Women leaders will see The Errand of Angels as something that will help the young women visualize their lives after high school as something more than a gap. I think that could be a positive thing.