Mission Persons

God's Army soldiers through Mormon trenches

"You don't come up to people's doors!" yells a woman to a pair of Mormon missionaries, before slamming her door in their faces. The scene, near the beginning of the film God's Army, is intended to illustrate the difficulties of Mormon missionary work, which I suppose it does. But my sympathies were entirely with the woman, and so, I'd guess, will be those of most audience members outside the faith.

This phenomenon keeps recurring throughout the film. When an African-American Mormon missionary (!), Elder Banks (DeSean Terry), is asked by a black couple he's talking to why the church didn't admit blacks to the ministry until 1978, his earnest answer boils down to: Because that's how the church says God wanted it. When the man says, "Boy, they are making a fool out of you," you may feel yourself nodding along. Likewise, Elder Kinegar (Michael Buster), a troubled young intellectual who's been reading anti-Mormon books and doubting his faith, is met with striking hostility from his fellow Mormons. Yet you're likely to find the questions he poses about Mormon doctrine quite reasonable.

In fairness, God's Army doesn't really seem to be aimed at non-Mormons -- it has more the feel of a sort of training/morale propaganda film for missionary kids who may be struggling with the urge to ditch. Though it's made smoothly and competently, it's too slow and insipid to really call a good movie. But as a behind-the-scenes cultural glimpse, it's fascinating. I've known -- and, almost to a person, liked -- a lot of Mormons, but a great deal about the lifestyle, which seems so self-consciously mainstream on the surface, remains mysterious to outsiders. Because God's Army appears meant for the flock rather than for us black sheep, it feels all the more illuminating.

The title isn't accidental -- the protagonist, the 19-year-old Midwestern Elder Allen (Matthew Brown), comes to La-La Land for his mission, and finds himself sharing an apartment with stock characters not so dissimilar to the barracks-mates of a World War II movie. Elder Allen is "the kid" who must be made a man by his experiences. His bunkies include a gearhead prankster (Jeff Kelly); a stolid, dignified Hispanic (Luis Robledo); and the aforementioned soulful Elder Banks and skeptical Elder Kinegar. In the WWII movie, one presumes, Kinegar's equivalent would be the loathsome college fellow who claims pacifist qualms, but who's really just yellow.

The "Sarge" of this outfit, and the apple of the film's eye, is the 29-year-old paragon Elder Dalton, played by Richard Dutcher, who also wrote, produced and directed the film. Dalton, who left medical school to become a missionary, must take the young greenhorn Allen and whip him into moral shape, so he can face the terrible Sodom/Gomorrah that the movie keeps assuring us L.A. is. Dutcher is far too demure to show us any of this decadence, though -- if only L.A. were really no seamier than what we're shown here. Even the two hookers that Dalton and Allen are trying to tempt into the fold look healthy and strapping and well-nourished.

There's one cute, self-deprecating joke -- a man surrounded by screaming kids and a nagging wife looks appalled when the missionaries tell him that his marriage can last for all eternity. Any other laughs in God's Army -- like, for instance, the impassioned enthusiasm of the hookers to lure Elders Allen and Dalton into their lair -- are of the unintentional variety.

This much, at least, can certainly be said for God's Army -- it's far and away the best movie about a young Mormon's journey of discovery to Los Angeles since Trey Parker's Orgazmo of 1997. In that film, the main character became a hard-core porn star in order to finance a proper Mormon wedding to his beloved back home in Utah. At the end, Jesus appeared to him, and endorsed this course of action with an enthusiastic thumbs up. No similar manifestation occurs at the end of God's Army, nor, I'm afraid, does any seem warranted by the movie.

 
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