I saw GOD’S ARMY in a theater in New York City after it came out. Richard Dutcher brought a level of realism to missionary work that I’d never seen before in a movie by an LDS filmmaker, let alone in one about missionary work. And there have been many good LDS movies since that time, including by Dutcher but also others: Hess, Little, Batty, Nelson and more. I believe it is very wrong to say that the best days of Mormon cinema are behind us. My belief is reconfirmed by THE NEXT DOOR, a short film by Barrett Burgin, a young filmmaker at BYU. You can view the trailer here.
The film is a noir mystery surrounding a pair of missionaries searching for a missing investigator. It has twists and turns, some predictable and some not. But at the film’s core is a redemptive narrative and an examination of missionary work as searching; the core question asked by many of the characters is “can I change? Can I become good?” – questions that resist facile answers. The film does not attempt to give complete answers but instead hints that change is possible, but not all change is good.
Burgin also quite accurately depicts the sheer weirdness of missionary work, how you see a bunch of weird stuff and sometimes act like stupid 19-year-olds. Getting chased, knocking doors, sitting around waiting, getting ditched — these are all central to the missionary experience. Burgin also accurately (and worryingly) shows the confessional and very private ways missionaries interact with investigators. We share and overshare, and investigators tell us of their private lives, their failings and fears. Who are we to peer into these lives?
The film is not perfect. It is 35 minutes long. It attempts to be a little too hard boiled in its noir, relying heavily on well-worn tropes. At times, these are layered to confusing effect, such as narrative voice-overs from the same character but reflecting two different past points in time. It’s a little distracting. But overall it’s a good film and worth watching. It is not easy to make a movie about missionary work that places a premium on creative narrative storytelling; the temptation is probably very strong to let devotional themes overwhelm everything else. Burgin has done a very good job here in that respect.
Seeing THE NEXT DOOR may be not be easy, however. The film makes it debut Thursday, September 29 and Friday, September 30 at the Geneva Megaplex and the Salt Lake Art Center. And that’s it, for now, pending broader release. But Burgin is just starting his career and this is a promising start.