Ryan Little's new feature film, Forever Strong, gave a strong opening to the 7th annual LDS Film Festival last night (1/16/08), with a crowd of some 700 in the SCERA center's Xango Grand Theatre in Orem, Utah. Last year Little brought Hollywood-level production values to the festival with his Outlaw Trail, and Forever Strong shows a strong upward trajectory for one of Mormon cinema's finest young directors.
An inspirational sports film that one might compare to Remember the Titans, We are Marshall, or even Hoosiers, Forever Strong is based on the Highland High School rugby team in Salt Lake City presided over for decades by real-life coach Larry Gelwix. Gelwix, played ably by Gary Cole, is interested in building character as much as winning, and he is gradually able to win over and spiritually reform the troubled lead, player Rick Penning (played by Sean Faris). Sean Astin plays a minor role, but gives the film a sense of its own center with some leftover shine from his own inspirational sports film 15 years ago, Rudy.
Forever Strong is likely to get better national distribution than any LDS film to date, but of course it will be marketed as the sports movie it is and not as a Mormon film. And that's fine. Sometimes Mormonism succeeds best on film when it is not hampered by its own representational oddities (imposed from without or within). Some will argue that the film has only general moral values to it, and that something like a coach insisting on no drinking, drugs, or sexual entanglements is no more Mormon than the Surgeon General telling people to stop smoking. Fair enough.
I'm less interested in the film being identified in any way as LDS as I'm interested in seeing this medium used to advance values and beliefs prized by Mormons (and by many others, of course). Viewers of Forever Strong will witness athletes unashamed to pray, serious about self-discipline and integrity, willing to serve their community, and working together as a brotherhood. Indeed, the male-bonding aspect of the film is one of its highlights, and it brings to mind the way Mormon priesthood groups are encouraged to create a sense of fraternity in their quorums (“The Priesthood is a great brotherhood....The feeling of brotherhood should permeate the quorum. It should be the first concern of a quorum to help all members who may be in need temporally, mentally, or spiritually." --Rudger Clawson, quoted by L. Tom Perry in "What is a Quorum?" [Ensign, November 2004]).
And though tradition is a standard trope of athletic franchises, the emphasis on this in Forever Strong comes from a Mormon sense of generations past and future: before playing, the coach gives each rugby player a letter written from a former team member who has worn that jersey number, and when they play they invoke the presence of former teammates and family members, giving a kind of sanctity and purpose to a high school game that is inspirational in the best sense of the word.
The rugby sequences are fast-paced and engaging, but with enough threat of violence to keep one on the edge of one's seat. Pleasantly absent from the film is any profanity or scenes to make uncomfortable family viewing. I think LDS audiences will embrace this equally with national ones.
Perhaps the inspirational sports film is a mainstream genre more open to Mormons than others because portrayals of strong moral values are welcome there. (I admit having felt slightly uneasy when in the Q&A following the screening Ryan Little reported having just finished a supernatural thriller). But in any case, Forever Strong will succeed in precisely the way that Richard Dutcher's Falling will not: it is going to resonate with both Mormon and non-LDS general audiences, and it will increase the confidence of other Mormon filmmakers and producers that crossover films are viable.