If you know anything about my background, then it's likely unsurprising that I would find myself drawn to Finnish filmmaker Tania Anderson's Sundance doc The Mission, a glimpse inside the inner lives of four young American Latter-Day Saint (LDS) missionaries as they commit their required two years of their lives to the mission fields. In this case, that means leaving the familiar grounds of the Western U.S. for the notoriously secular but too kind to fight about it country of Finland.
As someone who was raised Jehovah's Witness, I was kicked out for being gay (I'm not), I grew up in a denomination that was often associated with the Latter-Day Saints if only because both share a common expectation (not actually required as is common belief) that those who become members spend time preaching the good word whether locally or in the mission field. Regardless, I quickly felt a strong kinship to these four young adults as they faithfully headed out on what was likely the most emotionally, physically, and psychologically challenging period of their lives.
It's worth noting up front that if you're entering The Mission expecting some hugely revealing expose of LDS beliefs and practices that you're likely to be disappointed. The word benign comes to mind with The Mission, a film that really didn't teach me anything I didn't already know but instead did an excellent job of telling the very real stories of these young people.
The Mission is very much about these four faithful missionaries - Elders Davis and Pauole are so Scandinavian looking that I was honestly quite surprised when it was revealed that both are Americans. Sister Bills seems as if she'd have just as easily found a home in some sorority on the campus of BYU. For me, Sister Field was the most intriguing, a young woman who seems to come from the least religious of all the families yet also seems to be the most passionate about the actual mission.
It's also worth noting that Anderson is neither LDS nor does she have a bone to pick with the church. In fact, she reminds me a bit of myself as a film journalist who has long covered the LDS cinema scene despite having no relationship with the church and instead a genuine fondness for the films and filmmakers involved.
Anderson's approach to The Mission is observational. Anderson provides no voiceover here and there are no interviews to be found anywhere. Anderson avoids any sidebar history lessons. In essence, Anderson allows these four missionaries to tell their own stories both to the benefit and detriment of the film.
The Mission, for which it's obvious that Anderson did receive a fair amount of church access and cooperation, is neither a church advertisement nor any type of investigational journalism effort. Controversies are few and far between here, perhaps only Elder Davis's issues with mental health offering a glimpse into a church that acknowledges his struggles yet seemingly offers little support.
I'd easily venture a guess that much of the relatively benign nature of The Mission comes down to filmmaker compromise, perhaps a weaving together of artistic intentions and facing the reality that acquiring this type of access is extraordinary for a non-LDS filmmaker. The end result is a film that engages with its subjects but never feels fully immersive. The interpersonal nature of the stories intrigues, essentially young adults with only minimal training who've lived rather sheltered lives suddenly dropped into a land where 60% of its residents identify as atheist and where their primary socialization comes via their assigned companions and occasional mentoring sessions. While they are in Finland, there's never really a single moment where these young people are truly allowed to experience the culture. This is, practically without exception, a self-funded commitment devoted exclusively to being missionaries. In the end, this two-year journey feels like it's far less about obtaining actual members than it is simply supporting these young people as they transition from being child LDS members to LDS adults.
As someone who has lived in a similar but different world, I enjoyed The Mission immensely but found myself frequently wishing it would dig deeper into this missionary experience and into the lives of those who so fully embrace it as a vital spiritual discipline and practice. A good film that never really stretches out for greatness, The Mission offers a mere glimpse into the world of one of America's most intriguing denominations but that glimpse is, indeed, rather fascinating from beginning to end.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic