What do you think you know about Mormons? Big families, Utah, (polygamy?), Osmonds, clean living, Mitt Romney?
First released in theaters October 10, Meet the Mormons is an 80-minute infomercial produced by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (the full name of the Mormon church) highlighting a diverse cross-section of church members. This includes profiles of a black lay clergyman in Atlanta, the coach of the football team at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, a female professional kickboxer in Costa Rica, the famous "Candy Bomber" of the Berlin Airlift, a humanitarian in Nepal, and a Utah mother sending her son on a mission.
The entire story is hosted by New York comedian and former employee of The Daily Show Jenna Kim Jones, (who may be the best part of the film), she introduces the film from the streets of Times Square, where she asks people on the street what they know about Mormons. Interspersed with pop culture references including clips from The Simpsons, 30 Rock, Fletch and South Park (yes, South Park!), it sets the stage quite well: unless you actually have LDS friends and family, you might be unfamiliar with what the church is actually all about.
Light on church teachings, it's less an attempt to proselytize and more an attempt to introduce people who may be less familiar with it to the often-misunderstood church.
And in that sense, it is successful. Similar in tone and message, but much broader in scope, to the "I'm a Mormon" ad campaigns of the past few years, this doesn't really qualify as a "documentary" in the traditional sense. Instead, this is excellent advertisement and public relations for the church. And to top it all off, the film ends with the premiere of American Idol David Archuletta, recently returned from an LDS mission himself.
It's not that it's a bad movie, but most of its content will likely be preaching to the choir. Given the other movies it's competing with, it's unclear whether paying audiences outside of the most faithful of the LDS will flock to see this. Church leaders have stated that they hope to have a strong showing opening weekend, which will allow the film to stick around in theaters and eventually find its way onto streaming platforms where it can find its true target audience.
It's well-made, but it feels more like a video Pfizer, Goldman Sachs or Exxon would put out about how great their corporation is than an actual documentary. It's got a lot of passion put into it, but the point of view is already set and only interested in telling one story: toeing the corporate line of happy Mormons who love their families and find fulfillment in the gospel of Jesus Christ. But that's not a documentary.
A good documentary will hold up the lens of truth to any subject and show all of the nooks and crannies -- because those are the most interesting, real parts of life. This is too glossy for its own good.
However, in the ongoing struggle for the church to redefine their own image and engage in the missionary work for which it is often recognized, it will probably help.
For those who haven't yet Met the Mormons, this is an innocuous taste of a richness of diversity the church is all-too-willing to celebrate but does little to cultivate in its largely homogenized church culture. Walk into any random LDS meetinghouse this Sunday and you are unlikely to find anything resembling the folks in this film. Hopefully, the LDS faithful who see this movie will reflect on this and begin to welcome those diverse voices within their own flock that have recently been more marginalized.
While the church celebrates and places its members of African descent out front here, it was not all that long ago that the church did not allow them to hold the priesthood. There is no mention of this, leaving you wondering just how authentic this is. But again, this is corporate PR, not actual documentary filmmaking, where a topic like this might actually be discussed with honesty and clarity.
It's also impossible to mention the LDS church this week without discussing this week's Supreme Court decision, paving the way for marriage equality to continue in Utah (among other states). The LDS church has received a great deal of criticism for its involvement in Calfironia's Prop 8 and other marriage equality fights. But, again, this controversy is glossed over.
But before we get too cynical, all of the profits from the theatrical release are being donated to the Red Cross. So, regardless of the outcome, there is a positive end to this story.
You can find a theater playing Meet the Mormons here if you are really committed to seeing it. If you go in expecting a well-produced, entertaining but ultimately too fluffy of a story and not much more, you won't be let down. But if you expect more than that, you will.