Heather Beers, Steven Anderson
F. Matthew Smith
I would almost recommend "Baptists at Our Barbecue" solely for its tagline..."262 Mormons, 262 Baptists, heaven help us."
This is, admittedly, the kind of film I love. I've already established I have this quirky affection for the Mormon films, and this is one of the better ones (though not quite up to "Latter Days").
"Baptists at Our Barbecue" is the story of Clark Bender, a Mormon who has never been outside Utah and, in his bid for some independence from friends/family, takes a job out of state in the small town of "Longwinded." (Admit it, you chuckled). Bender, as portrayed by Steven Wayne Anderson (an almost frighteningly Bob Saget look alike), is simple, easygoing, peaceful and faithful. Yet, unlike some Mormon films, he's also human (though mostly in gentle ways). No, we don't have a Mormon serial killer here...but, we do have an honest man who gets challenged by frustrations, dreams, faith, anger and the insecurities of turning 30 and being single. It's a refreshingly honest portrayal of being human and not JUST Mormon. Is it an award-winning performance? Hardly. It's a nice, simple performance that works well in this low-budget, modestly produced film.
The town of "Longwinded" is unique because this town is divided evenly among the feuding Mormons and Baptists. The screenplay is written by F. Matthew Smith based upon a novel by Robert F. Smith. (Yes, one can't help but notice how many Mormons there are named Smith). The screenplay is more authentic than I'm used to from Mormon productions. While it's fairly subtle, the film deals fairly openly with religious tolerance, human relationships and the ways we deal with each other. Typically, in a Mormon film you won't find much ugliness...yet, in this film, we deal with a character named Rich (played by Charles Halford) who is vengeful, destructive and abusive to the point of criminal behavior. While it's played rather gently, it's still played...a remarkable sign of growth for Mormon films. Of course, this is a Mormon film so the resolution is positive...but, at least sensitive subject matter is addressed.
I've always had this nasty habit of reading through the cast listings of independent films and looking at the cinematic history of the cast. Usually, when dealing with low-budget films you find bad to average actors/actresses who've performed in all kinds of sex and horror films. Remarkably, this is seldom true in Mormon films. For example, this is Anderson's first film and Halford's second (first being a TV film). Almost exclusively, the Mormons seem to have developed their creative network. While I respect this, I also believe this may hinder the quality of the productions.
As Clark's soon to be "girlfriend" in the film, Charity, Heather Beers is reminiscent of the Mormon girlfriend from "Orgazmo." She's young, thin, blonde, perky and almost too innocent for words. Yet, that's also something I love about these films. There's no sell-out for box-office purposes...no sexualizing of relationships or pretty girls. The relationship here is almost uncomfortably innocent...yet it never seems false. This is a second film for Beers, the first being a 2002 production of "Charly." She's marvelous here in giving her character a depth that is actually not even evident from the script. Her character has returned from the big city after a broken engagement...she has remarkable moments of vulnerability, honesty and wit without ever being dark or bitter.
The rest of the townspeople are remarkably quirky, from the elders to the sheriff to the Baptist preacher to the strayed. The film's title comes from Clark's decision to hold a barbecue in an effort to bridge the feud...they are going to invite the Baptists to their barbecue.
"Baptists at Our Barbecue" is, most definitely a Mormon film. If religious films turn you off, then this film will not change your mind. It has moments of great preachiness, and enough positive resolutions to make the "Up With People" singers nauseous. Yet, this film rests in the "B" range for me because it succeeds on so many levels...especially for a low-budget, independent film. It is a gentle, sweet comedy about the differences that drive us apart and the similarities that bring us back together. It's actually a lot like Saget's old series "Full House." It's filled with lots of "awwwwwwwww" moments that you'll later find yourself thinking "I can't believe that got to me." Yet, it did.
Fans of positive, life-affirming and family validating films will find much to enjoy here. Fans of Mormon cinema will rejoice at a remarkably true to life and human film...AND those of us who miss a love story that is about relationships and innocence and intimacy will simply sit there and be grateful.
The film is rated PG for mild thematic elements and mild violence that may open the door to family discussions about tolerance and conflict resolution. I saw a very direct connection in the way the conflict escalated, even in the sense that Clark "reacted" to it aggressively at one point...and so it escalated out of control. It's a powerful lesson and yet presented gently enough that it's a great discussion point for families.
This film is produced by HaleStorm Entertainment, the same company that produced The RM, The Singles Ward and The Home Teachers, among others.
From a critical standpoint, I can't honestly rate this film higher than a B...but from a personal standpoint, I give it a wholehearted recommendation.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic