To be completely honest, it wasn't just my family that came with me to the theater last night. In addition, I (and my wife as well) brought with me a good deal of skepticism. After all, I had read only negative reviews from all the "worldly" critics (at the time of this blog's posting, Rotten Tomatoes registers only "rotten" reviews of the film). My fear was that this film was yet another cheesy, popcorn-popping-on-the-apricot-tree-loving production that would reinforce all the South Park stereotypes about who and what Mormons are.
And I wasn't without good reason for feeling this way. The film opens with a stereotypical young, uber-sweet, naive Mormon woman acting as narrator. Initially my thoughts were, "Great! Here we go again! Could somebody PLEASE save Mormonism from itself!" The cheesy, sweeter-than-sugar approach of the narrator was just too much to bear. She came off looking like the offspring of Donnie Osmond and a Care Bear! My wife and I exchanged "WTF?" glances that communicated the mutual sentiment of "why in the hell did we decide to watch this?"
But to our amazement, "Meet the Mormons" made quite the comeback! The initial 10 minutes (which completely suck) are saved by the story of Ken Niumatalo, head coach of the Navy football team. The Niumatalo family, which is like any good American football-loving family, is insanely competitive, completely sports-oriented and...oh yeah,..Mormon. Their story wasn't portrayed like an infomercial either. It was genuine, exciting and not cut from the typical Mormon cloth.
And that is what I loved most about this movie: the stories are NOT those you would find from mainstream Mormonism. Instead of portraying more of the same "white and delightsome" ilk that has made me loathe Mormon films for decades, "Meet the Mormons" gives us the exceptions to the Utah rule. All six stories portrayed in the film are of people that I would love to get to know and could see myself inviting over for a barbecue. They seem like the kind of people who know how to cut loose and live an authentic life that is free from uber-orthodoxy and blind conformity.
The six stories portrayed are (in the order shown in the film) that of a young Black bishop living in the Atlanta area, the head football coach of Navy football, a young kickboxing mother in Costa Rica, a World War II pilot who dropped candy to children when flying over Berlin, a man from Nepal who embraces both Mormonism and the Hindu culture of his native country, and a single convert mother who sends her son off on a mission. Each story is a testament to the fact that Mormons are, in reality, cut from many different cloths. For all of its emphasis on conformity, I have long been convinced that to be a good Mormon means being an individual, and the stories portrayed in "Meet the Mormons" seems to confirm that notion.
Of course, the movie is far from perfect. As has been pointed out in several reviews, "Meet the Mormons" does tend to showcase a sanitized version of the Mormon narrative. The families portrayed are always loving towards one another, their Sacrament meetings are harmonious and free of noise/distraction and EVERYBODY seems just soooooo darn happy to be attending three hours of church (nobody is ever bored in Sunday School and everyone brings their scriptures and is eager to participate).
In addition, "Meet the Mormons" offers little in terms of theology. There is no discussion of the basic tenants of the faith, nor is there any attempt to address some of the more controversial history of the church. Instead, "Meet the Mormons" reinforces the Mormon tradition that religion is more about day-to-day acts of kindness and service than it is about pontificating over the "nitty-gritty" aspects of theology. And make no mistake, Mormons filter their religion primarily through the lens of actions, not theology. As Mormon scholar and author Terryl Givens has stated:
In the modern era, Mormons have considered the very enterprise of theology to be largely a secular enterprise, a sign of true religion's failure, and not an activity worth pursuing with any energy.Instead of becoming proficient on the topic of theology (and I have long believed that Mormons are exceptionally illiterate when it comes to basic theology...of their own faith and that of others), "Meet the Mormons" is another example of how emphasis is placed on living as Christ-like of a life as possible.
And is this a bad thing? Certainly not. For as small as Mormonism may be on a global scale (and yes, we are small), The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has made quite a name for itself. "Meet the Mormons" is proof of this fact. In addition to these six stories, Mormonism can boast that is has produced two major candidates for the U.S. Presidency (Mitt Romney and John Huntsman), a globally recognized author (Stephanie Mayer of Twilight fame), Generals in command of American troops, tycoons of the business world (Marriott Hotels, Jet Blue, Nu Skin, etc.), several members of Congress (in both parties), and much more. Heck, we even have our outlaws and serial killers!
In short, despite its emphasis on communal white shirts and ties, Mormonism is a vast cornucopia of diversity that includes all shapes, sizes and colors. "Meet the Mormons" is a perfect example that to be a good Mormon means to be an individual. It is for these reasons that I believe "Meet the Mormons" is good for all audiences, but particularly of worth for actual Mormons. The film was made to "bring greater understanding" for those not of the faith, but to be honest, I believe it holds greater value for current members of the faith, especially those who are of the orthodox, black and white, all or nothing bend. This film should prove to every Mormon prude out there that members of the church are valued for who they are, not for how they conform. Every person has their own story to tell, and I for one LOVED the stories found in "Meet the Mormons" (particularly the story of the man from Nepal and the single mom).
So, in conclusion, I was pleasantly surprised by "Meet the Mormons." Contrary to what I have read from critics, the film is not an infomercial, nor is it a glorified "I'm a Mormon" commercial. It's a serious and valuable look into what Mormonism can and should be. For those reasons, I give the movie high marks.
My grade for "Meet the Mormons": A-
Go and see this film! You will enjoy it thoroughly.