Though not mandatory, a stint of missionary service is common among young Mormons, with men and (to a lesser extent) women mostly between 18 and 21 sent to LDS outposts around the world for evangelical work by the thousands each year. They comprise the most public face of a church still regarded by many outsiders as secretive and strange, and thus are an object of natural curiosity, if also some popular ridicule. During the Sundance Film Festival, even the streets of Park City itself have paid testament to the ubiquity of their cheerful accosting of strangers with the word of the Lord. It is disappointing, then, that this year’s virtual Sundance premiere title “The Mission” should promise a peek behind this particular holy curtain, only to reveal so little.
Tania Anderson’s documentary charts the voluntary missionary stints for four (presumably Utah-based, though such details are scant here) youths assigned 18-to-24-month proselytizing stints in Finland. Sending all these sheltered, squeaky-clean, mostly blond Americans to a polite, prosperous Nordic nation does not feel like a huge challenge. Nor does this innocuous debut feature manage to convey even a small sense of personal discovery or evolution, let alone spiritual engagement. If one might reasonably expect a film on this subject to primarily interest non-Mormons, it turns out the only viewers likely to find it rewarding are LDS members either considering sign-up or nostalgic for their own mission year. Exposure prospects outside Mormon communities are probably modest.
Brief opening text notes that missionary programs date almost from the start of the Church of Latter-Day Saints nearly 200 years ago. While it’s hinted that volunteers have to pay their own way, there is no light shed here on such logistics, what if any standards or qualifications are required of applicants, or how they get assigned a particular destination. Our protagonists, all pleasant enough, seem to see the whole business as an institutional rite of passage rather than any matter of individual purpose or ambition.
There’s initially hard-to-distinguish Elders Davis and Pauole, both athletic young men who’d look at home in any fraternity rush week. Vivacious Sister Bills (first-name use is frowned on in this context) may have a hard time separating from her own sister and constant companion. Sister Field at first stands out from this small crowd simply for being non-blonde, bespectacled, and having done some preparatory Finnish homework before they’re all packed off to a nine-week Missionary Training Center. There, they all struggle with learning a new language, while getting instruction on how to approach and win potential converts in the field.
Once in Finland, excitement is dampened — at least for the viewer — by realizing that these kids are hardly going to be plunged into anything more dislocating than temporary separation from friends and family. They live in LDS facilities, get paired with other LDS missionaries on a rotating basis as “companions,” and appear barred from most typical secular social activities. (Though again, the film doesn’t bother to provide any of that intel.) Thus their only apparent interactions with non-Mormon Finns are the awkward ones of trying to proselytize to total strangers, whether on the street or going door-to-door.
Unsurprisingly, this seldom leads anywhere. On the plus side, Finns are too nice to be rude about it. (The worst thing that happens is one passerby immediately sussing the situation and yelling, “I believe in evolution!”) But then these Americans, who speak Finnish so much worse than most Finns speak English, aren’t really ideal ambassadors of faith. They are not particularly mature, articulate, knowledgable, or even impressively fervent in belief. They are just kids on the cusp of comfortably staid adulthoods, doing what is expected of them. Perhaps the sharpest testament to “The Mission’s” odd lack of penetrating insight comes when, during a classroom presentation, one boy is rather provocatively asked, “Do you feel your life as a teenager is being limited?” The film cuts away before he can answer — if, indeed, he does.
As mild an adventure as this might seem to most, it is nonetheless too much for one protagonist, whose incipient mental health issues (with depression, social anxiety and such) are exacerbated by this overseas stint. He ultimately gets sent home early, and it looks like his problems may be long-term. But the film doesn’t get under anyone’s skin enough to extract much drama or insight even from this crisis. When the other three return to the U.S., they profess the trip has been a transformative, faith-deepening experience. We have to take their word for it: Absolutely none of that has been captured on screen, and they seem just the same as before. As for what Finns thought of them, or of LDS in general, such matters fall completely outside “The Mission’s” myopic purview.
Apart from some nice nature-walk shots, the film’s physical aspects are blandly competent, going about as deep as its content. There’s nothing terribly wrong with Anderson’s documentary — save that after 96 minutes, any viewer could well obliviously walk right past its principal subjects on the street, so fleeting an impression do they make in this surface-level portrait.