I left Utah just as the Mormon-movie craze was collapsing into a heap of half-baked, opportunistic, unfunny, quote-unquote comedies. No longer in Utah, Mormon movies became harder to see, and I haven’t often felt the effort was worth it.
I know, I know. Me of all people! I should know better than to be dismissive! But I’m still having my standoff with Netflix and they’re not in local theaters or my public library and I’m a little too cheap to spend twenty bucks on a movie I might not like. So I just haven’t seen many. Never mind that I am watching movies, I’m not watching many “Mormon” movies.
The only recent Mormon flicks (last five years?) I’ve seen are Freetown and Once I Was a Beehive.
But I couldn’t just forget about it because I was particularly interested in this film. Not because I’d just been to Girls Camp myself for the first time (though maybe that) but because I find stories about girls between the ages of, say 15 and 25 to be particularly compelling right now, both to read and to write. So I wanted it to be good. I wanted to hear it was good and to feel obliged to see it. And then I wanted to like it. Which seemed like a lot of unlikely steps.
Happily, even before I read anything about it, Excel provided me with a password-protected link to let me watch the film online. And I’m relieved to report that notwithstanding its flaws (which I will not ignore), this movie is good stuff and worth seeking out.
When I think of my favorite featuring-young-women films (eg, Ghost World, Mean Girls, Damsels in Distress, Heathers. . . .) a common feature is sharp, witty dialogue. Beehive has some of this, though it often ends with uncertain punctuation (a “duh” comes to mind). This problem goes away as the film commences. Largely, I think, because the script was less certain what to do with Lane’s parents than with the girls she interacts with.
Oh! Plot summary: Lane’s father dies. Her mother remarries a Mormon. She gets finagled (but not forced) into attending girls camp with her new stepcousin, Phoebe. Hijinks and, eventually, feels ensue. The end.
The film’s largest flaw is its interminable voice over. Every time the movie fully won me over, the VO would show up and start stabbing me. Leave me alone, VO! I’m trying to watch a movie!
The problem of course is that the voice over largely just says what we should be able to figure out on our own. The film occasionally tried alternates to Lane’s VO that were more successful. For instance, the camp’s opening prayer overlays the setting up of camp. It’s neither direct nor ironic. It’s accomplishing a lot without redundancy. Similar is the Young Women president’s recap near the end. Because it was a character speaking to another instead of a character speaking to us, it doesn’t come off like cheating.
The use of prayer in the film deserves more attention. We see prayer that is scheduled, prayer that is offered in desperation, prayer that succeeds, prayer that fails—for a movie that is not about prayer, Beehive found room to showcase the variety of slots into which prayer fits in the religious life.
(Of course, it should be able to slip a lot in with it’s 119-minute running time. Geez.)
The film is at its most successful when it shoots into absurdly heightened comedic voice. For instance, the rain scene captures the absurdly heightened comedy that is Mormon youth when you stick too many of them together for too long. That’s not an easy thing to pull off successfully, but Beehive does.
I’m not sure how much of my next comment is to be placed on the actors and how much on the director, but watching Beehive made me realize that one of the traits of better films is what characters on-camera but not the focus of our attention do with their faces and hands and shoulders. Too often they were engaged in distracting business when they should have been alive but invisible.
One character never guilty of this is the youngest character, Phoebe. When she is the focus, her dialogue is a cross between Woody Allen and Matilda—a challenge to be sure, but she nearly always rises to it. When the film relies on her emotions to move forward, she is ever better. Phoebe’s emotional journey requires Lane to proceed on her own emotional journey. This is a smart move on the screenwriters’ part as a relentless focus on Lane likely would have tossed the film into sentimental drudgery. Beehive‘s way to smart for this. It manages to give emotional arcs to most of the characters (some much smaller than others, of course) without ever pushing our noses in it. The films lets characters feel things naturally. And, sure, it relies on a couple cliches (that song!) but even its cliches it plays with. For instance, the testimony meeting isn’t about the nonMormon character become a bit more Mormon—it’s about all the characters learning and drawing from each other and to each other. We can all stand to be more Christian.
Perhaps the best demonstration of Beehive‘s unwillingness to be cheap and easy emotionally is the character Bree: daughter of the Young Women president, and cast and played to remind us of Regina George. But Beehive doesn’t suddenly turn her into a good person at the end. She’s been a good person all along—she largely changes in our perspective as we see a few of her rougher edges knocked off. If any character could have served the film by being a caricature, it was Bree. And the film didn’t let that happen. Good job, film.
Which is a hint at why this film is ultimately successful: it’s honest. Good people are flawed and bad people aren’t really all that bad. Everyone’s doing their best and no one’s best looks the same. Plus, you know, good gags like the rock giants and good acting like everything Allie Jennings‘s face does and heartfelt/humorous moments like the spirit animals’ midnight revue. Even the deus ex machina is earned by virtue of not happening for so long that we are allowed to settle into an understanding that the world is as cruel as it genuinely is.
Once I Was a Beehive is a super-safe movie that makes room for dangerous moments. So while the film is flawed, something this genuine and honest is allowed to be this sweet and to become this rewatchable. (Whether, on third viewing, the LOLs still beat out the VO remains TBD.)
If you’re in Utah, go see it in theaters. If you’re not, you have my assurance that it’s worth the hassle. And I live 800 miles from Provo.