Once I Was a Beehive

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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.

The trailer for that latter film worried me immensely. An essay by one of the filmmakers made me much more hopeful. But hey—I’m in California. What’m I gonna do?

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.

 

14 thoughts on “Once I Was a Beehive”

  1. I meant to go see this last weekend, but peach canning took up too much time (how’s that for a classic Utah/Mormon problem?). I’ve heard good things about it, and more than anything I’m excited to see more movies about female characters written by female characters–it looks fun. I might even take my 12-year-old girl to see what she thinks.

    You should watch The Saratov Approach–I’m curious to see what you think

  2. I took my daughter and 11 of her friends to see it today for her 12th birthday party. Everyone really enjoyed it. I liked the prayer aspects too. I thought it did a great job of incorporating religious elements without being preachy, which is always impressive to me.

    For me, the interesting thing was the realization that many of its plot elements are similar to a much darker book I have been dabbling with for the last few years. So if I ever buckle down and get it finished, and you ever read it, know that I was not borrowing from that movie! Just saying.

    I also recommend it, a lot.

  3. .

    I know what you mean. As I was compiling a screenplay project a couple weeks ago, I realized that in one spot, two concurrent scenes that seemed brilliantly original six months ago now seem lifted directly from Mad Max: Fury Road and Jurassic World. And it’s not even an action movie!

  4. Theric,

    This is an important development in LDS cinema. I recently changed careers and now find myself teaching high schoolers. When asked about my religion, my fallback has always been to say, “have you seen the young men in the white shirts and ties with the plaques on their chest? Those are Mormons.” Never mind that young women also serve in such a capacity (but their dress is harder to pin down so I don’t use them). But Mormonism is vast in terms of micro-identity. I could just as easily say “have you seen the throngs of teenage girls swarming about the woods one week out of the summer? Those are Mormons.” My point is that I’ve done the same thing Mormon cinema did. I started with the most obvious identifiers, and yet as I grow older, I find myself identifying less and less with the baby-faced (when did that happen) young men in white shirts and ties.

    Fortunately it sounds like the write and director of this film have a greater breadth of vision as to the importance of Girls’ Camp in the formation of the young Mormon woman’s identity. It was cathartic for my sister (and others) and consumed the life of my camp director mother for no less than a third of the year. When I first became aware of this film my immediate reaction was, “of course!” There are a number of peculiarities in Mormon culture that make worthy settings for explorations of human nature. I take this as a promising sign of Mormon cinema maturing into a new phase of more introspective films.

    Teaching kids how to write essays (and letting them criticize mine) has, for the first time in some years, given me a bit of an itch to jump back in to the film criticism game. This endorsement of such a unique film (by women filmmakers, thank you!) might just have given me an itch that needs scratching.

    And good luck with the screenwriting.

  5. .

    Thanks, Eric. The folks at Excel are looking for new directions to take Mormon cinema and you know there are artists waiting to take that opening. I don’t want to get too optimistic too soon, but maybe the 2010s and 2020s will fulfill the broken promises of the ’00s.

  6. In the 1930 version of Moby Dick (the first adaptation of the classic Melville book), Ahab was a lovable scamp who won the heart of the local minister’s daughter, promised to Ahab’s cheerless brother, Derek. But when Ahab loses his leg in a whaling accident, he becomes convinced that his love will reject him because of his disfigurement. He goes out to sea in pursuit of the whale, slays it, and returns victorious. Don’t call anyone Ishmael though. He doesn’t exist in this version.

    The point is that Mormon cinema has, in my mind, kind of followed a similar trajectory as cinema itself. Early on, it was far more of a novelty than an art form and it took artistically minded people experiencing the novelty to come forward and envision it as something else. If Mormon cinema made a promise in the 00’s, I’m not sure what it was. But Mormon cinema AND Mormon audiences both had to start somewhere and the only promise I would have believed would have been that both would evolve from that point.

  7. It stars one of out first ever film stars, John Barrymore, as Ahab. Personally, I think it’s awful because I can’t divorce it from the powerful themes of the source material which it abandons. But to that end it’s so watchably bad that it becomes a certain kind of good, if that makes sense. I suppose in the end I wouldn’t say it’s good or bad. It’s… instructive.

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