A movie about being gay and Mormon might have seemed unique before "Angels in America" and Tasha Oldham's docu "The Smith Family." Unfortunately, writer-director C. Jay Cox's "Latter Days" falls back on broad characterizations and stereotypical situations. Pic seems unlikely to branch out beyond niche gay auds in upscale markets.

A movie about being gay and Mormon might have seemed unique before “Angels in America” and Tasha Oldham’s superb docu “The Smith Family,” both hard acts to follow. Unfortunately, writer-director C. Jay Cox’s “Latter Days” falls back on the broad characterizations and stereotypical situations that typified the earliest gay-themed movies, while preaching a familiar (though not entirely ingenuous) message of tolerance. Currently playing exclusive Gotham and Los Angeles engagements, with expansion planned over the coming weeks, pic seems unlikely to branch out beyond niche gay auds in upscale markets.

Though it springs from a well intentioned desire to tell a personal story (Cox even wrote most of the original songs on pic’s soundtrack), “Latter Days” quickly succumbs to some of the worst tendencies of movies about “outsider” groups.

Unsubtly named Christian (Wes Ramsey), toned-and-tanned model-actor type, opens his door to a late-night caller and the two proceed to engage in a hot-and-heavy round of oral sex. Afterward, it’s revealed that Christian’s unexpected visitor had actually stumbled on to the wrong apartment by mistake, en route to a blind date…with a woman.

Meanwhile, elder Aaron Davis (Steve Sandvoss), a bright-eyed young Mormon from suburban Idaho who’s just landed on the mean streets of L.A., where he is to perform his requisite two years of missionary service. Aaron moves into an apartment, shared by three other missionaries (among them, “Third Rock From the Sun” star Joseph Gordon-Levitt), that just happens to be located across the courtyard from Christian’s place. From there, it can only be a matter of time (and contrivance) before Christian cozies up to Aaron and “outs” him as the closeted, self-hating homosexual he really is.

Every character in “Latter Days” is either openly gay (or a member of some other oppressed minority), a homophobe or a closet-case living in denial. Plus, they are either devout Mormons or consider the religion a cult. (Similarly, in Cox’s earlier screenplay for the Reese Witherspoon vehicle “Sweet Home Alabama,” everyone was either an uptight New York priss or a backwater, mosquito-swatting hick.)

The film’s most interesting development comes after Aaron and Christian, having actually fallen for each other, are on the verge of consummating their relationship when suddenly Aaron reconsiders, not because he’s nervous or ashamed, but because he’s taken aback by Christian’s laissez-faire attitude toward sex and life in general. Unfortunately, instead of expanding on this, pic falls back into its woefully formulaic pattern with Christian and Aaron being discovered in a tender embrace by the other missionaries. From there, Cox builds to an overwrought climax in which Aaron is sent home to Idaho and excommunicated (in a ridiculously overstylized scene that’s staged like an interrogation from a ’40s film noir).

Cox places greater emphasis on plot machinations than character development, spending little time exploring the role the church plays in the lives of its members and why it is so agonizing for even a gay Mormon to contemplate breaking away.

As helmer, Cox demonstrates only the most rudimentary sense of how to stage and shoot scenes, though his handling of actors is generally more confident. In the leads, both Ramsey and newcomer Sandvoss are effectively earnest (if sometimes too much so), while Jacqueline Bisset (as a sardonic restaurant owner) and Mary Kay Place (as Aaron’s mother) contribute lovely moments. Digivid lensing by Carl Bartels is at times glaringly overlit.

Latter Days

Production

A TLA Releasing release of a Funny Boy Films presentation. Produced by Kirkland Tibbels, Jennifer Schafer. Executive producers, Scott Zimmerman, J. Todd Harris, Kermit Johns. Co-producer, George Bendele. Co-executive producers, G. Sterling Zinsmeyer, Michael Wool, Tom Soto. Directed, written by C. Jay Cox.

Crew

Camera (FotoKem color, DV-to-35mm), Carl Bartels; editor, John Keitel; music, Eric Allaman; music supervisor, Michael Lloyd; production designer, Chris Anthony Miller; art director, Nanette Harty; set decorator, Peter Ayala; costume designer, Lisa Lesniak; sound, Jim Ridgely; associate producer, Darryl Anderle; assistant director, G.W. Rolling. Reviewed at Regent Showcase, Los Angeles, Feb. 9, 2004. Running time: 107 MIN.

With

Elder Aaron Davis - Steve Sandvoss Christian - Wes Ramsey Julie - Rebekah Jordan Traci - Amber Benson Andrew - Khary Payton Lila - Jacqueline Bisset Ryder - Joseph Gordon-Levitt Harmon - Rob McElhenney Gilford - David Poser Keith - Erik Palladino Sister Davis - Mary Kay Place Farron Davis - Jim Ortlieb
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