God’s Army came out my senior year at BYU. And it was a revelation. Fifteen years later, I can still remember the impact of seeing a movie, an actual real live movie, about my people, about my experiences. One that took those experiences seriously.
At the time, I was studying English, with a focus on creative writing. And I was thinking seriously—or, at least, as seriously as I could—about Mormon art. I mean, there was plenty of kitsch, plenty of inspiring-but-not-artistic stuff out there. But Richard Dutcher created a Mormon movie without the kitsch, something quality.[fn1]
After I graduated, though, and moved away from Utah, Mormon filmmaking had almost zero impact on me. Some Mormon cinema was great—I have New York Doll sitting in my DVD collection. Some of it wasn’t. Most of it I never saw, because it never came to New York or Chicago, where I lived. So I was excited to hear that Once I Was a Beehive was going to make its Chicago debut on Friday, October 30.
I was excited because I’d heard rave reviews of the movie, both from friends and in various online reviews (including John F.’s review on BCC and Eric D. Snider’s review). And now I get to add my voice to the praise.
Actually, I’m going to give two reviews: mine and my second-grade daughter’s. In fact, hers first. About three quarters of the way through the movie, she leaned over to me and said, “This is such a good movie.” After it was over, she said, “Today was the best day of my life. I didn’t learn anything at school[fn2] and then I saw this amazing movie.” And in the day since we saw it, her enthusiasm hasn’t dimmed at all.[fn3]
And with that, my review: it’s a wonderful family film. And I hesitate to say family film, because as often as not, those words mean that a movie is sloppy, scatalogical, slapstick, and stupid, but doesn’t use bad words or have sex or violence.
I mean, there are no bad words, sex, or violence in Once I Was a Beehive—I didn’t cringe once at having my daugher with me. But it’s not a family movie just because of what it doesn’t have—it’s a family movie because of what it does. The story is carefully- and well-constructed, and it’s engaging. At the very beginning, my daughter wasn’t smiling, and she whispered to me that the movie was sad. (It is sad at the beginning.)
And then, something funny happened. And she got a grin on her face. And the grin was on her face the rest of the time.
The movie’s humor isn’t cheap—the humor comes from the interaction between girls and women, girls and women who are mostly, but not entirely, sure they want to be where they are, doing what they’re doing.[fn4]
It wasn’t just my daughter, either: this is a family movie in the most inclusive sense. My daughter loved it, but I did too. The writing is solid, the acting is excellent. And the filming is beautiful—I’ve written that I love the beauty of the city, and this is clearly not a beauty of the city movie; I don’t recall ever seeing an urban (or even suburban) outdoor shot. But I also love the beauty of the outdoors, and the scenery is, well, scenic.
Is it an accurate depiction of Girls Camp? I don’t frankly know.[fn5] But I do know that what happens in the movie is believeable, if exaggerated. (I mean, it’s largely a comedy, so it has to be exaggerated.)
And is it just for Mormons? Again, I can’t say for sure—I’ve never not been Mormon. But it’s not preachy and aggressive, and it doesn’t talk inside baseball. We see the movie’s world through the eyes of someone unfamiliar with the church, which provides a window through which an outsider could approach Girls Camp. And when I saw it, the theater had a number of audience members who weren’t Mormon, who seemed to enjoy it. For what that’s worth.
What I’m saying is, if you haven’t seen it, you really should. It’s rolling out here and there around the U.S. and Canada, and it’s worth keeping an eye on this site to see if it’ll be near you.
And if you’re in Chicagoland, we’ve got it at least until Thursday.
[fn1] At least, that’s how I remember experiencing it. I haven’t seen it in at least ten years, though.
[fn2] N.b.: there’s a little bit of second-grade hyperbole there; I know she took a math test, and I know her teacher taught her. But her school also had its Halloween parade, and her class started the day with a dance party, and I’m honestly glad that my job doesn’t require me to keep the attention of second graders the day before Halloween.
[fn3] In fact, she’s already made me promise that we’ll buy the DVD when it comes out.
[fn4] John points this out in his review, but I wanted to second it: the movie clearly passes the Bechdel test. It mostly follows ten teenage girls and three women; the men, when they appear, aren’t central to the story. And, given that it’s a story about Girls Camp, that’s right.
[fn5] My wife has been to Girls Camp at least 11 of the 13 years we’ve been married, but, for a bunch of reasons, couldn’t see it with me Friday night. She’ll see it next week, and then I’ll have a better idea of its accuracy.