Duck Beach to Eternity

You won’t learn much about Mormonism from watching Duck Beach to Eternity, but you will learn a lot about how Mormonism intersects with current-era, white, upper-middle-class privilege.The new film, directed by Stephen Frandsen, Laura Naylor, and Hadleigh Arnst, takes you into the lives of four singles as they pack and fly to Duck Beach, North Carolina, for an annual Memorial Day weekend of “chaste” partying for under-40 single Mormons.  The movie provides you with just enough background in Mormonism to contextualize the desperation of every single character shown, but then, like its most influential antecedent, “The Hills,” it gets out of the way and allows the beautiful and vapid to express themselves for entertainment purposes.

As you can see from the trailer above, the basics of Duck Beach look like the basics of any Spring Break activity.  There is obviously no alcohol or drugs and folks tend to keep their clothes on, but this is still primarily about young kids looking to score (or the appropriate Mormon equivalent).  A lot of people throw out words like “Celestial,” “pure,” and “marriage” but none of this appears the least bit serious. In spite of the testimonials of the recently wed or the litany of 20-23-year-old women worrying about becoming old maids, it is impossible to take anything the young folks here say or do seriously.  The only exceptions are the older singles, who seem slightly more desperate for all their having higher standards.  It would appear, from this film, that if you aren’t married by the time you are 30, you are a pariah, cast to the outskirts of society, better off if never seen again.

As a film, this fails the Bechdel test.  There is never a time when the interviewed women aren’t talking about men.  For that matter, it is rare for the interviewed men to not talk about men. The power dynamic in LDS dating is on full display. Women succeed insofar as they please a man at Duck Beach.  Men succeed insofar as they can convince women to spend time with them. Everything, absolutely everything, is about appealing to the male libido, in a Mormon culture appropriate manner. The entire dynamic comes straight out of Fascinating Womanhood.  It’s a sight.

However, while the film is rich with examples of gender roles run amok, those aspects are somewhat passe.  What is truly interesting about the film is that the participants know how ridiculous that they are being.  Several participants comment on how shallow they are, how shallow the festivities are, how ridiculous their behavior is, and yet there they all are, continuing to be shallow and ridiculous.  There is a certain element of maturity that helps one move beyond apologize for bad behavior to actually stopping the bad behavior; these folks don’t generally appear to have acquired it. Instead, we see people unapologetically embrace modesty rhetoric while ogling girls in bikinis.  We see others blithely comment on their hospitality, noting that they even accepted the socially awkward without too much trouble. These children aren’t going to apologize for being awesome; they can’t help that it all comes to them so easily.

It is this aspect that most reminds me of my time teaching at UVU and BYU.  Something has combined in how we teach our youth and how the surrounding media culture has adopted the cult of youth to create these sorts of people.  A thousand pre-made reality stars, certain that the world exists to cater to their dreams.  Certainly there is plenty of that in wider American culture, just as there are plenty of Mormons (young and old) who don’t have this sense of entitlement.  But to take the example of the most down-to-earth protagonist provided in the film, we all think God cares about whether or not we get a parking spot. Combine the LDS sense of a personal, loving God with the modern American sense of entitled privilege, and you get these people.

Perhaps this might incline us to despair, but I think not.  First of all, an honest assessment of one’s own youth will likely reveal a similar level of fecklessness and cluelessness.  We’ve all likely succumbed to the desire (if not the opportunity) to create a little in-crowd for ourselves.  Let us not disparage these holy fools their opportunity to behave Mormon-edgy. Second, and more important, remember that the purpose of the church is to take people, actual clueless, silly, vain, shallow, awful, beautiful, fragile, transient, lovely, human people and make them like God. Whatever else we may or may not think of the folks this film portrays, they’ve chosen to show themselves to us warts and all (no mean promise). These are the kinds of people who will one day be bishops and Relief Society presidents.  Temple matrons and stake patriarchs. We all come from silly stock. We all must grow. That we’ve caught these folks at their silliest should not prevent us from imagining their capable best. God works with humans, not ideals, for which we should all be grateful, especially when we put on a bathing suit.

Duck Beach to Eternity premieres tonight in New York City.  The screening is already sold out, but do look for another if possible.  The film is worth checking out.

Comments

  1. Thanks for the review, John. It seems to be a fascinating look at a small, and I would argue fringe, demographic of Mormonism. I think it takes a certain type of single Mormon to go to Duck Beach, so that is a self-selecting pool that reveals more about itself than it does about the broader Mormon culture.

    But I’m going to go ahead an ask a question about the broader Mormon culture, anyway. I wonder how much of this is indicative of the fact that we have yet to develop a discourse for young single adults that grants them full adulthood divorced from their marriage status. It seems we generally place marriage as the barrier to becoming adult, so it is almost expected that people act immature and unwilling to take the next moral steps you mention while they are still looking for that ticket to adulthood. Singleness, for some of these people, then, may be seen as a ticket for not growing up.

  2. J. Stapley says:

    That was a very insightful and charitable review, John. It’s not often that I want to be better person after a movie review.

  3. I respect your charity and sense of balance, John C., but I don’t share it. I can’t get away from the fact that the movie expected me to be invest 90 minutes of my life in people that are, as you say, shallow, vain, rich, sexist, and ridiculous. Not everyone in the film fits that label, but enough do that I needed some sort of critique, some sort of angle or darkness or surprise, to justify spending time around them. And I don’t think the film provided that, at least not for me.

  4. You had me at “ogling girls in bikinis.” ;) I can’t totally tell from your review whether this is a documentary or a mockumentary, or maybe a mixture of the two, or something else entirely. The IMDB page is sparse:

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2265265/

    Overall, would you say it was entertaining at least?

  5. This is a great review, John C. It’s fascinating to see millennial self-absorption get warped through a gospel lens. It’s like they only know the first verse of “I am a Child of God” and not the chorus.

  6. It’s like they only know the first verse of “I am a Child of God” and not the chorus.

    Masterful.

  7. Ben P, I totally hear you. My secondhand reports about the LDS “mid-singles” scene in Las Vegas suggest that even people who have previously been married and are old enough that they should know better run around acting like dumb kids. Think 45 years old and getting a babysitter so you can go to a pajama party. Ugh.

  8. Reminds me of a party I went to once. They played the “try not to smile when the girl sits in your lap” game that apparently was popular at BYU at the time. One of the most beautiful girls I’ve ever met (now why can’t I remember her name?) sat in my lap as I sat reading a great National Geographic. I smiled. She complained that I had lost since I smiled. I said I didn’t care. I had a gorgeous woman sitting in my lap; I was going to smile. Needless to say, I wasn’t much fun at the party.

  9. “It seems to be a fascinating look at a small, and I would argue fringe, demographic of Mormonism. I think it takes a certain type of single Mormon to go to Duck Beach, so that is a self-selecting pool that reveals more about itself than it does about the broader Mormon culture.” Ben, I disagree. Everyone in DC goes to Duck Beach. I went to Duck Beach (once–one of the worst weekends of my life). It’s a ritual out here. Maybe some people self-selected to allow themselves to be filmed, but the immaturity of singles events is real, real, real and there is wide participation.

  10. Oh, goody!… all the awkwardness of the Mormon singles scene on full public view. Friends and I took to calling one of the singles wards we attended “Club Church”–unsurprisingly, several of us decided to prematurely graduate ourselves to family wards despite being unattached and in our 20’s. There were certainly some lovely people in our ward, but the general social dynamic was, well, what you describe above (more charitably than I ever could!).

    Ben P, excellent point–and one I’d never considered from quite that angle. At 34 and unattached, I’ve sometimes gotten the vibe from ward members ten years or more my junior–who happened to be married–that they somehow perceived me as being less mature, or not quite an adult. Your observation helps put that experience in context for me.

  11. Yes to #5 and #6.

  12. Ben,
    Like I said, the longer I was in UT county, the more I saw this sort of empty-headed entitlement. I’m not certain that what we are seeing here depicted is a fringe movement, even if most member can only dream about having the economic resources to waste on this sort of thing. Rather, in an era in which church membership in America has been greatly commodified into a lifestyle, you see the end result of American Mormon aspirations. We all want to be young and pretty or surrounded by the young and pretty or behaving like the young and pretty. It is partly that single adults have no real institutional role within the church, but it is also partly their decision to juvenilize themselves in an effort to seem attractive. Who knows if they behave the way they do at Duck Beach all year (or at the Vegas retreat and so forth)? At Duck Beach, they do what the kids do at EFY (slightly nautified) so that they can feel like the kids do at EFY. Far too often, we are a church of Pharisees; Duck Beach amply demostrates that.

    Russell,
    I’m not certain that the film had to critique the participants for three reasons: 1. Beardy-guy kept forthrightly bringing the wisdom (“I paid $700 so I could touch a boob”). There should have been more of him, of course, but alternate viewpoints were present. 2. Most of the most appalling things said and done are so blatantly uncharitable or clueless, that commenting on it may rob the shocking reality. I admit that this is where I come closest to agreeing with you, because I think the UT county crowd are more likely to admire these jokers than to disparage them, but one can hope. 3. Often times, the people saying the appalling things realize that they are being appalling. One young woman says, “As women, we’re kind of at the…disposal…that’s kind of a bad word to say…the men are the deciders, the pursuers.” They keep skirting close to the truth, realizing how awful they sound, and then retreating immediately. The people in the film really provide all the commentary necessary.

    FHL,
    It’s a straight up documentary. It is fascinating, but in the same way that The Hills or The Real Housewives might be. You laugh at these people, not with them (assuming you are an adult). You cringe at the clueless and stupid things they say. Definitely not a showcase of the best of Mormonism, but not its worst either. Hang around a mall in Utah and you’ll pretty much see the same behavior.

    Kyle,
    Yup.

  13. John, so you’re saying that some Mormon young adults (not even close to a significant minority) aren’t all that different than many non-Mormon young adults – except that these Mormon youth stop at touching boobs, while their non-Mormon counterparts at this type of gathering are busy doing much more than that?

  14. Ray,
    What I’m saying is that the majority of Lifestyle American Mormon Young Adults are pretty much like the Lifestyle American Non-Mormon Young Adults in their aspirations and in their ideas about how to achieve they. They may draw lines around sex and alcohol, but other than that its the same game plan, the same goals, the same kids. At least, that was my experience intermingling with them at the collegiate level.

  15. That’s what I thought, John – and I don’t disagree that it’s true of many American Mormon Young Adults.

    When you use the capitalized term “Lifestyle American Mormon”, I can’t argue at all – since it seems to compartmentalize a specific sub-set of the membership into a category that, by very definition, fits your description. I just don’t think it’s anywhere near the majority of American Young Adult Mormons. I also have worked with them at the high school and college level, and I think the aspirations and lifestyle choices the majority of them make often are very, very different than their peers.

  16. Ray,
    I only worked with them in places where they were the clear majority and the assumption was that everyone was Mormon. And, in that circumstance, they seemed remarkably like the people portrayed in this movie. I don’t doubt that other experiences vary, but this movie hued closely to mine.

  17. That makes sense, John.

    I’ve worked with them primarily in places where they weren’t the clear majority. Our experiences probably are different for that reason as much as any other.

  18. It strikes me that it’s worth linking back to Stephen Frandsen’s own guest post to BC from last year as he was gathering funding and exploring this idea and asking for input on how to approach the movie.

    Some more enlightening discussion came from that post and the reactions today don’t seem too dissimilar to what Frandsen encountered when people saw his teaser.

  19. Not to detract from the very insightful and valid observations going on here about the warped or confused state of Mormon YSA’s, but I have to insert, for the sake of some positive element, that exceptions happen; I went to Duck Beach last year with a group of wonderful friends from DC, and our house– deliberately removed from the main scene (perhaps discounting us from the scope of the study? :) ) was filled with wonderful, reflective conversations, good reading, sunrise walks and early morning runs. It’s a shame the documentary didn’t try to find anyone outside the stereotype– amusing showcases of anything-but-subtle or egalitarian mating rituals aside, there really were some great, thoughtful Mormon YSA’s who saw it as a chance to reunite with old friends scattered around the east coast. A long-time friend of mine, who is Presbyterian, once hung out for a weekend with our DC friends, and remarked that it was the first time she had been around a group of people our age that actually spent time in genuine conversation, sharing insights about social, political, and religious issues, rather than playing shallow social games at the local bar. For as much havoc as the marriage-obsession, inflated entitlement and hyperindividualism as wreaked on many Mormon YSA’s, for others, Mormonism has provided the most fertile ground for meaningful relationships- a kind of capaciousness and depth that I have had difficulty procuring in many other nonreligious circles, to be frank (though certainly not all).

  20. European Saint says:

    I attended a couple of years back just to listen to the speakers at the (not coincidentally timed) John Adams Center discussions occurring there at Duck/Corolla the same weekend. It was a wonderful time, and had little to nothing to do with the above depiction of the film’s contents (I have not yet seen the film).

  21. FWIW, a friend was at Duck Beach when this was being filmed. His view was that the filmmakers were very interested in pushing certain stereotypes, and that what they captured on film was about as manipulated as anything on ‘reality’ TV. Word quickly spread and most folks with half a brain gave the crew a wide berth.

  22. Beautiful single Mormons decide to go have fun with other beautiful single Mormons one Memorial day weekend, maybe even meeting someone to date seriously.

    Entitlement? I didn’t get that. Seemed innocent enough to me.

  23. I’m an LDS single woman aged 42. I’ve never been to Duck Beach but have been to several LDS Midsingle weekend events. My experience is that there’s usually a small subsegment of “the pretty people” who act more like what’s being described in these posts. Usually it’s only a few people who deliberately push the boundaries and limits of “church standards” regarding dress and behavior. There’s also a vast age range and sometimes these weekends are an excuse for the ones on the younger end of the “midsingle” spectrum to come and meet each other, even though it is that group that needs these weekends the least. The older one gets in the church as a single adult, the harder and harder it is to find each other. As for the emphasis on “rich” or excessive money spending, there is a movement amongst midsingles to create more interesting and entertaining weekend events that will actually seem appealing enough to come to. Before these events existed, singles over 31 often had nowhere they could go to meet each other that felt even remotely comfortable, as otherwise there were only the all inclusive age ranged events from age 31 to 100. The organizers of the midsingles events have this cultural history in mind and make great efforts to make the events more appealing to a more mature group, often including events that are in nicer venues and cost a little bit more money than traditional “singles conferences”. These are all good things and in my opinion necessary to help singles over 31 feel included and like there are places they actually fit.

    I am glad to hear Morgan’s account of how attendees of Duck Beach that year viewed the filmmakers – which went along with my suspicions that they may have skewed our impressions of what the weekend event is like. Remember, these weekends are often attended by anywhere between 400 and 1000 people, so it is impossible for there to be just one kind of experience for all.

    I haven’t yet seen the film, but I am somewhat disappointed at the comments that seem to fill this board criticizing single people in the Church. Those who marry in their twenties never have to know what it’s like on the other side. While it may be true that delaying marriage can make us delay maturity, I think it is also true that Church culture as a whole does not do nearly enough to help us feel like we matter or that our unique (or “fringe”) situations are empathized with.

  24. I have not seen the movie, so my comments are based only on the relative maturity issues I’ve seen in young and middle aged adults in the Church: I see NO difference. I know lots of married people who are immature, who continue to live largely off their parents, who play video-games and forgo family time to participate in a soccer league, who give their kids crazy names and refuse to graduate from school even though they are 40 and have five kids just because graduating is such a drag. Married, but immature. Whatever immaturity the singles are displaying are, at least, not negatively affecting a spouse or children.

  25. Folks, I can’t comment on what wasn’t portrayed in the movie, having actually seen it and not having actually gone to Duck Beach. I’m happy to have you all continue to assure yourselves and me that your experiences (at Duck Beach or, I guess, elsewhere) were completely different from those portrayed in the film, but unless you are recruiting or something I don’t see the point.

    I did not say that single people are universally immature or that married people are mature. I said that the people this film shows are immature, because they still think saying sorry makes it all better. That is a generalization; I wouldn’t even apply it to two of the main characters, but their lack of it makes it all the more apparent in just about every other character. In the meantime, Heaven knows that the super absolute best way to demonstrate one’s own maturity is to insist on it in an internet forum.

    I do think that there is something to the idea that the church doesn’t treat singles as real people. They get to have pretend wards when they are young and, as they get older, the church has and less of an idea regarding what to do with them. I even understand the notion that young single adults, mid-singles, and older singles have different concerns and different entertainment needs. So I guess that it’s good that the church is coming around on that. As to the rest, I fully admit that I married fairly young and was happy to leave the marriage pressure behind. I too operate from a place of privilege within the church.

  26. marginalizedmormon says:

    I wasn’t aware of the existence of this sort of ‘gathering’–though one of my single adult children informs me that he/she was aware of it, though has never had the desire or inclination to participate.
    I am not certain that things have changed very much in 40 years–
    Things were quite brutal for my spouse and I when we were single, and we were not young when we married. And we were some of those who tried to be inclusive; we were what the world would now call ‘losers’, and, considering my internet name, we still are–
    I feel unhappy placing the blame entirely upon the young people. I think that the culture that most Mormons embrace as having some value, even in its oddities, needs to share some of the blame. It is impossible for a people who have been commanded to leave the world (whatever that means) to use a worldly means of helping young people find suitable marriage companions–without having a lot of error and a lot of heartache.
    You can’t apply social Darwinism to heaven–
    But here we all are, using those darwinistic precepts to make one of the most important decisions anyone can ever make.
    It’s a catch 22.

    Those of us who have tried to teach our children more humane (Christlike) methods of relating to members of the opposite sex have found that they are usually the first ones to be put into the human meat grinder–
    not having passed the test to be the pricier cuts of meat at the meat market–

    This speaks volumes about a culture/society that has failed its youth–

  27. John, if you’re calling singles wards and branches “pretend wards” then that just makes me sad. I would say you’re also speaking from a place of lacking experience and information and have bought into the stereotypes.

    Once you break out of the university student wards where honestly the focus is on a very narrow set of needs and can feel like pretend – I guess – and get past the Wasatch front you find congregations where single adults come together with just as much purpose as any Ward I have ever attended. Yes there is a focus on bringing single men and women together in a variety of activities and there is the understood goal of seeing those couples marry, but along the way an enormous amount of growth and service minded engagement envelops the members.

    I look back fondly on the time I spent in my Midwest and New England singles Wards. I’ve never experienced a more edifying Sunday School and Quorum meeting set of experiences when it comes to intellectual/spiritual stimulation. The one Ward was so successful that it caught the attention of the the folks in SLC and many queries were sent asking what we were doing differently.

    It helped that the Stake recognized the skills available and we were distributed to work with the struggling Wards and Branches and shore up their leadership and members – but we still met together as well. Because we didn’t have family responsibilities that extra time was often spent building programs that fostered testimonies and conversion among the youth of the Stake, many who were at risk for many reasons.

    As an EQ we reached out to the less active and provided service to many struggling members who found their isolation and sometimes loneliness overwhelming. There were far more service opportunities in the community and outside our Mormon confines identified and pursued then I generally find in any family Ward. The lessons I learned then have served me well in my Church service ever since and I hear the same comments from many lifelong friends I made in those Wards.

    I’m not saying every single Ward is like this. I’ve visited, read about, and heard about Singles Wards where the stereotype is alive and well. But let’s be cautious how broadly we whitewash. It strikes me that in some regions of the world the Church has a solid understanding of how to strengthen and make the best use of the abilities single adults offer and does not see them as a “problem” that needs to be solved other than offering the same love and support any member requires.

  28. Stephen Frandsen says:

    Hi John. Thanks for your review. You offer up some very insightful comments. For those interested in seeing the film, it will be available as of 10/30/12 on cable video on demand, and on iTunes.

  29. John, I haven’t seen the doc/mock-umentary but this really is a great review. Thank you for your effort in writing it. I learned something I needed to know even not having seen the film.

  30. Stephen Frandsen says:
  31. John C, I must agree with pretty much everything you posted, particularly post #13. “Beardy-guy” was spot on.

  32. Re: Crystal: “While it may be true that delaying marriage can make us delay maturity”

    The subtle critique from the movie is not that delaying marriage delays maturity, it’s that delaying the process of sexual development can delay maturity.

    Placing strict rules around sexual experiences (plus adding an overseas mission for most guys) creates a Darien Gap from ages 14 through to 21 or so, keeping that level of maturity in and around those early teen years until well into adulthood.

    Then there is the pressure to marry early and immediately; you have 21 or 22 year olds with an approach to sexuality, love and the opposite sex that’s not developed beyond 14, forcing them to leap that gap and leap it fast. In my experience, many of them never do, and those that do never truly make up for those lost years.

    If you don’t marry early, you’re kept over on the other side of that gap for longer and longer until the point that you’re out of touch with the experiences, norms and social skills of most other adults, both within and outside of the church.

    Strict rules around sexuality coupled with intense pressure to marry young and immediately has an enormous impact on the culture and norms within the community.

  33. I should clarify, “and SOME OF those that do never truly make up for those lost years.” Sorry.

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