My sister Katherine’s review of “The Errand of Angels”

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

Synopsis
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.

Analysis
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.

11 thoughts on “My sister Katherine’s review of “The Errand of Angels””

  1. Thanks for the review, Katherine. I’d seen it advertised and wondered about it.

    I saw The Best Two Years and thought it engaging for mainstream Mormon audiences. Its quality, too, was bolstered by fetching shots of the countryside. How does The Errand of Angels compare with The Best Two years in tone, content, and quality?

  2. Thanks for the review…it does seem intriguing, and I might see it for nostalgia sake…

    While I didn’t know about circumstances for filming (15 days, 10 crew members, shoestring budget), I must say the one thing that drew me away from this (and many missionary films) is the overusage (and almost reliance) on kitschy querks. The meals, the language, etc.

    That’s where I praise Richard Dutcher. He was willing to use a mission as a backdrop for a story. I’m hoping that this film does open the horizon of sister-missionary based films, but I also hope that more films don’t rely on a mission, but use it as background for a larger story…

  3. .

    I haven’t seen it, but I have seen the lead in some live productions, and she’s great. And cute as a button. The promotional images don’t do her justice.

  4. Saw it today. Compared to the Best Two years, the Best Two Years was alot more fun. Sitting and watching Errand, it took me back to my mission and how hard it was. It was very realistic of mission life, and showed alot of the discouragement and difficulty of a mission. I wonder if young women watching this would think, “wow, that’s really what I want to do!”

  5. Hmm. In reading this review I wrote in January, it sounds a little harsher than I meant it. I actually did quite like the film, and one of the nice things about it is because of its general appeal, I feel comfortable recommending it to pretty much anyone. I’ve talked to several sister returned missionaries who identify with the film, so I think it’s serving its purpose.

    Patricia: _Errand of Angels_ and _The Best Two Years_, as I remember them, are actually quite similar in tone and quality. They both show some of the more aggravating sides of mission life, both have characters who change their perspective about things because of companions they end up with, and both have a colorful milieu of investigators and cultural experiences.

    brandt: I think that there have been some very nice stories told of the mission experience. It’s one of those aspects of Mormon culture that is a goldmine for good storytelling. I too like what Dutcher did with the mission story and hope to see some richer, more complex portrayals of mission life in the future. Have you ever read _Angel of the Danube_ by Alan Rex Mitchell?

    Th: The protagonist is very attractive, it’s true. Large blue eyes and luxurious coppery curls. She also dresses more stylishly than any sister missionary I’ve ever seen, and I actually found it distracting. Are sister missionaries really allowed to wear orange tights?

    annegb: Haha. I personally like that song, but I agree that it tends to get oversung.

    Sally: Thanks for chiming in to give your reaction. I haven’t served a mission, but I’ve also heard other sister missionaries who said the film was “realistic of mission life” as you say. I’d like very much to hear specifics if you have time.

  6. Thanks Katherine.

    Though I agree with some of your analysis, I have to add that I felt the movie added something the others did not – the feeling of being a Sister Missionary. I left this movie edified, which was something Dutcher’s film did not lend the audience, even after the incredibly long ploy toward redemption at the end of States of Grace. Gideon said he didn’t think it had enough conflict, or that only companion conflict was not not enough for character development. I would have to disagree. Sister’s do not go with the testimony struglles that some (few these days) go with. They go with a strong testimony wanting to share the gospel. Most often the greatest opposition they experience is either companion difficulties or convert disappoinment. This film portrayed those perfectly.

    I loved that the gospel doesn’t have to be weighed down in the mire of disturbing issues to have struggle and growth.

    Christian did a great job, and I honor him for the extreme time and effort he put forth to make such a beautiful film.

  7. Candy, thank you for your comment. While God’s Army impacted me in a more profound way, I also found The Errand of Angels an uplifting and genuinely touching film. I’m pleased that so many Mormon artists are doing different things with the Mormon missionary story. It’s one of the many aspects of Mormon culture that’s a goldmine for storytelling, and I feel like we’ve just scratched the surface.

  8. I always enjoy hearing your thoughts, Katherine, and I liked reading the comments from other readers as well (even if the most recent comment was over a year ago… guess I’m a little late).

    I’d say “The Errand of Angels” is of a higher quality than “The Best Two Years,” which, while one of the better theatrical Mormon movies, really, really suffered in my opinion from its low budget and its distracting shift in tone (from realistic drama to slapstick comedy buffoonery).

    I disagree with you when you suggest that Sister Taylor doesn’t change. I think that’s what makes this a much better film than Vuissa’s follow-up, “One Good Man.” Where “The Errand of Angels” has much, much less conflict, it follows a solid (if small) narrative arc in which the protagonist learns and grows as a person, learning to love others as the Savior would (the voice-over narration at times spells out the message in enormous billboard-size letters, but otherwise it’s conveyed quite nicely and subtly). Meanwhile, “One Good Man” is a film about a guy who has a million things thrown in his way, and essentially has no trouble dealing with any of them; they stress him out and keep him busy, but I don’t see any growth or progression in the character, despite Tim Threlfall’s terrific performance.

    For me, both films fall short of Dutcher’s three (four, if you count “Falling”) exceptional Mormon films (the redemption in “States of Grace” apparently felt like a “ploy” for some; for me it’s one of the most honest testimonies I’ve ever experienced, through any of the arts or otherwise). However, I think “The Errand of Angels” is a solid entry in the second tier of Mormon theatrical cinema–not great or life-changing, but a very lovely, very solid, very worthwhile film with some beautiful moments. It’s sad that there aren’t more movies like that in the recent crop of LDS cinema, but we should definitely be excited by those that do exist, and hope for more to come.

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