A new group of young Mormon missionaries pounds the Los Angeles pavement in "States of Grace," writer-director Richard Dutcher's follow-up to his surprise hit "God's Army." But audiences expecting the same gentle, at-times comic view of missionary life will instead find an uncompromising, disconsolate pic about crises of faith.

A new group of young Mormon missionaries pounds the Los Angeles pavement in “States of Grace,” writer-director Richard Dutcher’s five-years-later follow-up to his surprise hit “God’s Army.” But audiences expecting the same gentle, at-times comic view of missionary life will instead find an uncompromising, disconsolate pic about crises of faith, much closer to Dutcher’s violent 2001 thriller “Brigham City.” That plus a formidable (not entirely justified) two-hours-plus running time spells an uphill commercial battle for self-distributed pic, which opened in Utah and Idaho today, with a nationwide rollout planned for early 2006.

Whereas “God’s Army” focused on a longtime missionary and his wet-behind-the-ears protege, “States of Grace” finds a similar dynamic in the relationship between Elder Lozano (Ignacio Serricchio), a Latino missionary who’s literally counting the days until the end of his mission, and Elder Farrell (Lucas Fleischer), a wide-eyed rube seemingly immune to cynicism.

New pic’s tone is established early on, when the streets of Venice, Calif., become the backdrop for a nerve-jangling drive-by shooting, with Lozano and Farrell caught in the fray. When the hail of bullets stops, they come to the aid of the intended victim, African-American gang member Carl (Lamont Stephens).

When Lozano rips off his shirt to make a bandage, he reveals a body filled with gang tattoos and scars from bullet wounds — vestiges of the life he led before he found God.

Upon Carl’s recovery, he and Lozano develop a grudging rapport, and it’s not long before the gang-banger expresses his interest in becoming a Mormon — a transformation that might easily have seemed contrived, but which, to the film’s credit, is rendered believably and with little fanfare.

Like its predecessor, “States of Grace” suggests that the most meaningful acts of conversion are often the unpremeditated ones, with Carl’s eagerness contrasted against montages of Lozano and Farrell futilely traipsing door-to-door, peddling “The Book of Mormon” to the uninterested.

A less harshly realistic film might have ended there, but in “States of Grace,” Carl’s getting religion proves easier said than done, as he is pressured by fair-weather friends and even his own younger brother to take revenge on his would-be assassins. Carl’s inner struggle is, in turn, mirrored by Lozano’s conflicted feelings about his continuing role in the church and by Farrell’s own drift into temptation when he falls for an aspiring actress (Rachel Emmers).

Those may not sound like life-altering dilemmas, but part of Dutcher’s skill as a filmmaker is his ability to make even a non-Mormon audience understand the moral weights his characters feel hanging over their heads.

As it progresses into darker waters, “States of Grace” feels like a personal catharsis for Dutcher and his own questions of faith, somewhat like “The Passion of the Christ” seemed to be for Mel Gibson. Yet, as Dutcher cross-cuts between pic’s three primary storylines, “States of Grace” loses much of the initial tension it has amassed. Part of the problem is that, while the Argentine-born Serricchio proves a powerful screen presence in his feature film debut, fellow newcomers Fleischer and Emmers fail to bring the same potency.

Pic’s midsection gets bogged down in heavy speechifying and a subplot about a homeless street-corner preacher (Jo-Sei Ikeda). Though the movie gets back on track for a tense third act, this is the first of Dutcher’s pics on which he has served as the sole credited editor, and one senses that an extra pair of hands in the cutting room might have been beneficial.

Tech credits, as per usual with Dutcher, belie pic’s low budget, particularly lenser Ken Glassing’s ace location shooting in and around Santa Monica and Venice.

In Utah, Idaho and other Mormon-populous markets, pic is being marketed as “God’s Army 2: States of Grace,” though fleeting cameo appearances by “God’s Army” cast members DeSean Terry, Jeff Kelly and John Pentecost are the only concrete ties between the two films.

States of Grace

Production

A Main Street Movie Co. release of a Main Street Movie Co. and Destiny Entertainment presentation of a Zion Films production. Produced by Richard Dutcher, Dan Urness, Emily Pearson, Mark Victor, Jeff Chamberlain, Stin Hansen. Executive producer, Larry H. Miller. Directed, written, edited by Richard Dutcher.

Crew

Camera (FotoKem color), Ken Glassing; music, Ben Carson; production designer, Steve Cubine; set designers, Erin Cook, John Hagan; sound (Dolby Digital), Zsolt Magyar, Jerry Wolfe; supervising sound editor, David Rawlinson; assistant director, Robert Ballentine; casting, Jennifer Buster. Reviewed at FotoKem, Burbank, Oct. 27, 2005. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 128 MIN.

With

Lozano - Ignacio Serricchio Farrell - Lucas Fleischer Carl - Lamont Stephens Holly - Rachel Emmers Louis - Jo-Sei Ikeda Mae - J.J. Boone Todd - Allah Chatman Banks - DeSean Terry Mangum - Jeff Kelly President Beecroft - John Pentecost
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