"Wrestling with God" is one of the reasons I go to a film festival. This 22-minute "conversational drama" was not your typical movie, and I applaud its three producers and three actors for having the guts to do something completely outside the mold but inside the heart of Mormonism. (Pictured here is one of the actors, Niki Nielsen). As the producers/directors explained it afterwards, the origin of the film was a deep conversation they'd had about what it means to live the Mormon faith. Someone had the presence of mind to make a recording of this (which was then transcribed into a draft of the screenplay). Whoa! All I can say is that I'd love to have these people over to chat at my house!
This film is what I would call an intellectual-spiritual feast. A sort of Mormon My Dinner with Andre, this film is not for those seeking spectacle (or even a simple plot). It's a conversation--how boring! But it certainly was not so for anyone who takes seriously not just Mormonism but the paradoxes that Mormons live within--especially obedience and agency. One man took the role of the faithful member, another, the role of an insistent but respectful doubter. The woman played something of a mediator. One of the very interesting discussion points was the issue of "cafeteria Mormonism": to what extent does our personal agency in living gospel principles become a pick-and-choose dodge from real commitment?
What might have been an overly cerebral discussion--approximating those more-heat-than-light discussions that can happen in some academic settings regarding Mormonism--was rescued by the intervention of two very timely personal anecdotes recounted by the first (orthodox) man and at the end by the woman. When pushed by the nonbeliever/fence sitter, the more orthodox man (who was bearded, adding a nice irony in playing against type) told a story (based on real events) about a miraculous intervention that saved a family member's life after an accident. One can argue inconsitencies or problems with the Mormon faith, culture, or church, but such potent experiences tend to confirm spiritual realities that trump doubts.
The second story, told by the female character at the film's close, provided a beautiful allegory that (beautifully) went uninterpreted. A baby at church in the almost-walking stage leaves his bench and ventures down the aisle, only to trip and nearly bang his head. But rescued in time by a perceptive member sitting on the aisle, the baby grows bold again to take another step, and then proceeds to make the same stumble-and-rescue progress down the aisle, aided by the members along the way. That sat really well with me. Not only is this a metaphor for mortality and the fall, but it invokes the way God's grace is woven into our lives through the timely interventions of our neighbors in the faith. We sometimes don't even realize how many "saints along the aisles" have guided our steps and redeemed our missteps as we bumble onward.
There was a simple piety to this conversation which rescued it from being a show-off piece for brainy Mormons. A believing sensibility undergirded it, and I went away edified. Thanks to Beachfire Pictures and to Andrew James, Torben Bernhard, and Marissa Bernhard for giving some substance to the festival in a surprising and effective manner. Could this be the launch of a new sub-genre of Mormon film? I only hope their imitators will do as well as these trailblazers.