“Once I Was a Beehive”: Must-See Mormon Film of 2015

“Once I Was a Beehive” (2015)

Go see this film! It’s one of those rare Mormon films that you’ll love, whether you’re Mormon or not. If you live in Utah, it’s playing in theaters until Thursday, August 27, 2015.

I do not pretend to be a connoisseur of Mormon film by any stretch of the imagination, or a movie critic in general, for that matter. In truth, I can add very little to film and theater critic Eric Samuelsen’s excellent review of Once I Was a Beehive, in which he highly recommends the film. I fully endorse his review in the sense that he says exactly what I would have wanted to say but much better than I could have. (Samuelsen’s glowing recommendation means a lot because he is known as somewhat of a cynic or at least a critic — he calls himself the Mormon Iconoclast — about Mormon culture.) But I had a few brief thoughts about it based on my own tastes in literature, film, and culture, and perhaps most importantly, from my perspective as a Mormon father of four Mormon daughters.

Sneak Peek of a scene featuring the inimitable Barta Heiner as Camp Director Nedra Rockwell

First, this independent movie was really well done; more than a “feel good” movie, it was actually inspiring.[1] Written and produced by Maclain Nelson[2] (The Saratov Approach), it features a number of local Provo or Utah actresses who, though either at the very beginning of their acting careers or not professional actresses at all, each deliver excellent, convincing, and even moving performances. Eric Samuelsen mentions the two stars: Paris Warner, who plays Lane Speers, a Catholic/agnostic girl thrown into the mix of a Mormon Girl’s Camp, and Mila Smith, playing the youngest Mormon girl at Girl’s Camp, the “Beehive” Phoebe Valentine, who is afflicted with severe anxiety. Samuelsen describes Smith perfectly in his review: “a brilliant mess, with a serious anxiety disorder, a therapy dog she can’t be parted from, and a sort of needy nerdiness . . . . At times, Smith comes across as a precocious little female version of Sheldon Cooper.” He is correct in lauding both of them.

Warner puts on a smooth, enjoyable performance. She effectively and entertainingly communicates the disorientation of a non-Mormon suddenly thrust into the Mormon cultural world when her recently widowed mother marries a “cheesy Mormon guy with perfect teeth,” as Lane describes her new step father (played by Brett Merritt). And Smith carries her role of anxiety beset know-it-all with ease, no small feat for such a young actress. But I think that Lisa Valentine Clark (who plays the Young Women’s President Carrie Carrington — Lane quips about the unlikelihood of her name and goes on to rib Utah names more generally) and Hailey Jones Smith (who as Mila Smith’s mother in real life also plays Phoebe’s mother Holly Valentine, who has just begun to work as a Young Women’s Presidency Counselor to “Sister Carrington”) give equally convincing performances — impressive for amateur actresses on the silver screen for their first time (as I understand) — that are important for the realism of the subject matter.

Though intentionally over-the-top in its portrayal of Mormon Girl’s Camp and the culture surrounding it, the movie nevertheless very accurately and realistically depicts what Girl’s Camp is like for those who have participated. The Mormon women with whom I have spoken about the movie, including my wife and two older daughters, have told me that it felt so familiar, that it seemed to be an aggregation of all of the real life over-the-top silliness of Girl’s Camp, as well as the serious, spiritual side in which Girl’s Camp leaders try extremely hard to help the participants make a real connection with the Divine through the camp experience (or, failing that, to at least manufacture memorable spiritual experiences for participants who are resistant to forging that real connection through the experience). This aspect of the movie had the whole audience laughing knowingly at regular intervals. (This “knowingly” will work just as well for non-Mormon audiences, if the movie-goers know at least one Mormon.)

Second, this realism, thoroughly infused (as Eric Samuelsen observes) with “good-hearted affection for the quirks and oddities of Mormon culture” — that is, with tasteful satirical lampooning of some of our excesses, tends to be a key to successful Mormon movies, from my observation. The 2008 offering Errand of Angels comes to mind as having successfully navigated this essential realism in the experience of LDS sister missionaries. Written by Heidi Johnson and Christian Vuissa, and directed by Vuissa, Errand of Angels gives an honest, interesting depiction of the internal and external difficulties faced by Mormon women serving as missionaries in Austria. Ignoring the awful German throughout the movie (except for the German and Austrian actors, of course), it convincingly shows the real spiritual growth — and the joy — that can be experienced by a missionary who, however imperfectly,[3] devotes his or her full energies to the missionary work.[4] This movie deeply inspired my nine year old daughter to take thoughts of serving a mission when she turns 19 seriously, to the extent that she grabbed her cousin and went around our Provo neighborhood “tracting” and teaching delighted ward members their own self-concocted missionary discussions. Once I Was a Beehive improves on Errand of Angels with an assist from its genre categorization as a comedy rather than a drama. Once I Was a Beehive can use satire to poke fun at how seriously we take ourselves, sometimes to our own detriment in broader society. In any event, I saw how the movie’s realism, even though often portrayed through satire, had the same effect both on my younger daughters in inspiring them about Girl’s Camp and on my older daughters who have already experienced Girl’s Camp.

Finally, this use of satire is particularly effective and entertaining because it is packaged together with the movie’s revealing use of the outsider motif, in this case an outsider deeply embedded in the long-standing, insider-baseball cultural phenomenon of Girl’s Camp. I just happen to have rewatched a random episode of Lost“Strangers in a Strange Land” (Season 3, Episode 9) — the night before I saw Once I Was a Beehive. In that episode, Jack (the spinal surgeon marooned on the island) begins to walk freely among his captors on the not-quite-deserted island after he agrees to nurse their leader Ben back to health when a surgical wound becomes infected. The “sheriff” of his captors interprets the Chinese characters tattooed on Jack’s left bicep: “He walks among us but is not one of us,” to which Jack irritably responds, “that’s what it says, but that’s not what it means.”

Here, the outsider mechanism is poignant as we watch a Catholic/agnostic girl, who is struggling with a major loss and her own search for meaning after the death of her father, become deeply embedded in a troupe of Mormon women and girls who are (predictably and understandably) going about business as usual for Girl’s Camp without much existential thought about the whole enterprise. This devices throws the innocent absurdity of much that is associated with this cultural ritual into stark relief. We must accept that, yes, this is all very weird, but at the same time, we can see that it is genuinely beneficial and positive for these girls.

Nevertheless, through the substantive and full involvement of Lane as an outsider in all of the “insider” jargon and activities of Girl’s Camp, an essential scriptural principle emerges. We see the palliative effects on an organism as a “wild branch” is grafted in to the “tame” trunk of the proverbial olive tree, thus revitalizing the roots and thereby preventing a wholesale decay that otherwise threatens to kill an organism (or institution) that has become sclerotic through cultural stagnation or endless positively reinforcing feedback cycles. (See Jacob 5 and, in particular, verses 4, 7, 9, 16-18, 34, 36, 52-54, 60-61, 63, 65-66, 73-74 of that chapter.) Lane’s sensible, practical, and well meaning input enriches the experience for all and transforms what might have been a rote cultural exercise into a profound experience for all of the participants, including those girls who are only at Girl’s Camp because their parents are making them go.

But this effect is about more than depicting the age-old adage of “new blood” being thrown into the mix. The movie models these young women’s leaders and girls taking Lane seriously and respecting her views and experiences in their own right even though they are not laced with the typical Mormon cultural cues and linguistic or religious coding. (And it shows Lane taking them seriously and trying to understand them on their own terms.) The respect displayed here allows Lane to teach each of these solidly Mormon women things that will benefit them without diverting them in any way from their pursuit of the Gospel. Likewise, Lane learns a few things that are epistemologically new to her in her own very personal search for meaning. Put simply, there is no threat in welcoming Lane into the group and respecting her precisely for the differences she brings with her, even accepting them and allowing them to add something that wasn’t previously there to the Girl’s Camp experience. Quite opposite from Jack’s tattoo in Lost, then, the governing principle expressed by Nedra Rockwell (played by Barta Heiner), the gruff but lovable Girl’s Camp Director who brings her full wealth of experience as a former Army nurse on the front lines in Vietnam to her Girl’s Camp duties, in a moment of giving counsel to a dubious Lane is “If you’re with us, you’re family.”

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[1] As a side note, the film easily passes the Bechdel test.

[2] I had heard that Hailey Jones Smith (who played Holly Valentine in the movie) had written the screenplay but she is not given writing credits at IMDb. I think I remember seeing her credited with writing the screenplay in the opening credits, but I could be wrong about that. I did, however, happen to notice in the end-of-film credits that Smith is credited with writing the catchy song “Together,” which is featured in the film. The film also boasts a thoroughly enjoyable soundtrack of Mormon-y, Gospel music in the folk rock style of the Sabre Rattlers and others.

[3] Boyd Jay Petersen expresses this sentiment well in his essay “An Acceptable Offering”:

It was a beautiful autumn day, six months later [after his former companion Elder Porter had returned home], when I said my goodbyes to France. . . . I was full of mixed emotions: I was sad to be leaving France; I was excited and nervous to see my family and friends again. But I also felt an emotion that totally surprised me: a deep sense of peace, joy, and comfort. For lack of a better work, I felt pure. I was utterly surprised by this feeling. I knew my mission had been a mixed bag. Sometimes I had worked hard and had little success. Other times I had not worked hard and had little success. I had seen two baptisms. . . . I certainly did not expect to feel good about my mission. The resentment I had felt toward Elder Porter was gone — if anything I felt shame for being self-righteous and not being a better friend. But this too was swallowed up in the warm feeling that I was going home having served an honorable mission. As had Elder Porter six months earlier. That day, as I walked back to the Metro station at the end of my last day in France I felt better than good; I felt like my offering had been accepted.

Boyd Jay Petersen, “An Acceptable Offering,” in Dead Wood and Rushing Waters: Essays on Mormon Faith, Culture, and Family (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2013), pp. 27-28.

[4] Attesting to the realism of the movie is the Mormon missionary guilt induced by crushing on Sister Young (Rachel Emmers) while watching — speaking hypothetically, of course. (Both male and female missionaries are discouraged from developing romantic interests in other missionaries and are, of course, forbidden from “dating” each other or people in their missions while they are serving.)

Comments

  1. And how does one living outside of the Mountain West find this movie?

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    I’m hoping it will come to AMC 30 in South Barrington, IL. I think I might have seen a preview for it, and they played Saratov Approach back when that was in theaters.

  3. I came out thinking “It’s scary how amazing Mormons are at producing a generic (ish) Christian film.”

    But it was quite funny in parts and generally heartwarming as well. It was fun to watch with my family, including my two oldest girls who went to girls’ camp just a few weeks ago.

  4. On your say-so John I’ll take my kids to see it. Great review.

  5. Good stuff, John. Thanks for reviewing.

  6. I remember Mila Smith when she WAS the youngest girl at girls camp (New York 2012). Kind of fun to see her again here. Looking forward to seeing her in more than just the preview!

  7. Thank you for taking the time to write this thoughtful review. For people interested in seeing the movie come to their area, please go to http://eventful.com/performers/once-i-was-a-beehive-/P0-001-014199324-0 and request it.

    And just to clarify, Maclain and I conceived the story and characters together and he wrote the dialogue. Therefore, I did get a story credit and he is credited with the screenplay. :)

  8. Great review. Looks wonderful.

    I have six daughters. I’d like to see this film. I live in Australia. Will it be necessary to wait until it’s out on DVD and on sale at Deseret Book or will there be faster, better, easier ways to access it?
    Thanks

  9. I am in Alaska, and expect to be able to see it whenever it gets to DVD/Amazon or Netflix, in 6-9 months. I hope I am wrong and it gets here sooner, but that is my general experience with most fulms, especially niche market ones.

  10. As reported in Variety yesterday, it should eventually be available for digital streaming: http://variety.com/2015/film/news/mormon-comedy-once-i-was-a-beehive-national-release-1201579418/

  11. jaynesargent@cox.net says:

    Can you tell me when this film will come to the Phoenix area? I’ve heard great things about it and know that this market would support your film!