Saturday, February 28, 2004


THE BEST TWO YEARS (2003, USA, Scott S. Anderson)
It’s all about the work.

The poster gives the set-up. Against a postcard-gorgeous background of windmill and poppies walk four black-suited young missionaries. The first two stride purposefully forward, oblivious to all except their mission. The fourth sees only the book he studies intently. But it's Missionary Number Three who breaks the symmetry, his body turned away from us, snapping a picture as he walks.

Those are Elders Johnson and Van Pelt out front. They're men on a mission, quite literally, and all's right with the world. They've got girlfriends back home, their partnership is working great in a goofy, dorm-room put-down kind of way and most important, their numbers are up in all categories; Discussions taught, Books of Mormon placed, Referrals made, Proselyting hours logged and Challenges issued. (The Weekly Statistics form they fill out looks eerily like a baseball score card, which is, I guess, appropriate for this Made In America religion).

The one with the spectacles bringing up the rear is the newbie, Calhoun, a nerdish, over-eager convert who tries too hard and has no aptitude for the task at hand.

But Missionary Number Three would rather shoot pictures in the park than work his way through a tightly scheduled "To Evangelize" list. They're running late, but it doesn't phase Elder Rogers to take a sudden detour for Dutch baking from a roadside stand. When the squad returns home, he's the one who fools around with Dutch kids in the street. Rogers isn't pass up any chance to stop and smell – or at least photograph – the flowers.

K.C. Clyde is a winsome performer who's nicely cast as this story's doubting disciple. Low key and sardonic, he's at home in his body, eminently watchable. You have to like this guy. He's got a wryly observant sense of humour and an unforced charisma that leaves no doubt Rogers would be one heck of an evangelist if he'd only get his act together.

Which is precisely what our story's about. For reasons that are revealed over the course of the film, Elder Rogers long ago lost his original zeal, and now his very faith may be in question.

Clyde completely succeeds in winning us over with his portrayal of this refreshingly round peg in very square hole, and his work is clearly the film's greatest strength. Unfortunately, it also points up the movie's greatest problem.

Once Rogers regains his faith, he takes no more pictures, takes no more detours, buys no more stroopwafels. Either he or the writer can no longer take time for such peripheral self-indulgence. The character who insisted that numbers don't matter is now running up a record tally, and there's no doubt the movie wants us to take that as an unqualifiedly good thing. More likely, many viewers will conclude this whole Mormon mission business is a pretty driven and life-denying endeavour.

Frankly, Elder Rogers is the only one of these guys I'd want to hang out with. He's savvy, he doesn't get drawn in to the bickering of his dorm-mates, he seems to relish the world with an artist's appreciation, and he wears his top button undone. What's not to like?

But that all changes when he recovers his flagging faith. He gets with the program and, for all we know, becomes pretty much the same as his much less interesting fellow missionaries. Ultimately he tells his partner, "it's all about the work."

What a pity.

This is essentially a relationship story, so the film's other problem is the superficiality of these relationships. Wacky dorm-room shenanigans wear thin pretty quick, and they really aren't an adequate way to explore relationships or character in the first place. The final leave-taking is sadly unaffecting: is this a script problem, or are mission-field relationships really this shallow? These boys share months or years together, but to judge by this film, it's only "time served" – the friendships are only, in the final analysis, about the work, and there's less of a bond among them than I'd expect after a half-decent weekend retreat. Some of the performances play into this problem, going for a two-dimensional comedy that's too broad to work on screen.

The film does succeed in a number of ways, though. David Nibley is strong as Elder Johnson, and he does a nice job with Johnson's own long-awaited story reversal – if only it had come much earlier in the movie, we could have had some far more interesting character development there. Scott Christopher is just right as the potential convert, Kyle Harrison. The music is ear-catching, the exterior photography is eye-catching, and there are some effective uses of simple-but-nifty camera tricks, point-of-view and time-lapse shots that really enhance character development.

THE BEST TWO YEARS is very much a "Mormon movie" – it's about Mormons, by Mormons, for Mormons. The fascinating thing is that it may have real interest for evangelical Christians – especially those who are most likely to consider the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints a non-Christian cult, but who may have more in common culturally than they ever would have imagined.

Over the past decade or two, there has been an explosion of Christian involvement in theatre and film, with churches hiring ministers of drama and films being produced specifically for such a market. Box Office Mojo gives sales figures for movies "produced by Christians outside the Hollywood system to promote their principles" – and alongside THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST, LEFT BEHIND, LUTHER and THE JUDAS PROJECT you'll find plenty of LDS titles, everything from THE BOOK OF MORMON and LATTER DAY NIGHT LIVE to PRIDE AND PREJUDICE.

Fact is, the live theatre tradition among the Latter Day Saints goes back much further than a couple decades, and out of their strong affirmation of performing arts is growing a niche-market film industry that is worth paying attention to. It's not uncommon for films like THE OTHER SIDE OF HEAVEN and GOD'S ARMY to show up on the shelves of neighborhood video stores – where you'll probably find THE BEST TWO YEARS once it finishes its limited theatrical run.

A number of reviewers are cautiously hailing this charming but flawed story as the best Mormon film so far. It's very much in keeping with the spirit of Mormon theatre – in fact, it began as a stage play that was wildly successful with Mormon audiences. It's about evangelism, but it's not primarily evangelistic, it's confessional. Like pageant plays about Mormon settlers making their way to the Promised Valley, this story celebrates the community by giving witness to its shared experience. The opening song makes that connection: "I believe that the Mormons make the best pioneers, so I'm going to the land of the tulips, I'll be knocking out my best two years...".

To its credit, THE BEST TWO YEARS shows a refreshing willingness to acknowledge the foibles and possible problems with some Mormon missionary practices, but the story ultimately comes round to affirming the value of the whole enterprise. Mainstream Christians may have deeper objections to Mormonism than this film acknowledges, but conservative evangelical viewers who can get past those concerns will connect at a human level with the sense of standing outside the prevailing culture, the passionate desire to have a testimony and share it with others, and the often painful tension between the mandate to evangelize and the immense personal and cultural barriers to carrying that out.

My own misgivings have always come down to the strong impression that, overall, this particular church doesn't really get grace. Whatever they may believe about the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, there still seems to be a pervasive belief that, from that point on, you have to earn your way – that you have to do certain things, not do other things, attain certain standards of righteousness and service, in order to qualify for various after-life perks, or maybe even eternal life itself.

I know individual Mormons who share my absolute conviction that Jesus' death wins us eternal life if we simply receive it from Him as a gift, and that nothing we can do will add to that in any way. That is the good news. Wherever individual Christians or specific denominations may differ, on that point there's just no wiggle room. Preach something different, you're not preaching the gospel.

Apart from my affection for the open-hearted charms of this film, or my qualms about questionable artistic choices and story-telling weaknesses, my real concern about THE BEST TWO YEARS is that it conveys a very dangerous message: you are what you earn. "Blessed are the spiritually ambitious, for by hard work they shall earn success." The soundtrack music calls Elder Rogers' predicament "a fall from grace," but I'm troubled by the cause it identifies: "I know deep down the truth is, I've been afraid to toe the line." I hear words about grace, but most of what I see tells me that, really, it's all about works.

I don't know if that's a problem with the film, or with the soil it springs from. But in either case, it just won't do.

An edited version of this review first appeared at Christianity Today Movies.