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.