What LDS filmmaker Richard Dutcher has managed to accomplish with the earnestly likable "God's Army" is nothing short of a cinematic tightrope act.
Admittedly, there are a few wobbles along the way and perhaps even a stumble or two. Yet, considering what's waiting for him below should he fall, this independently produced drama is nothing short of a triumph. Mission accomplished.
After all, the very idea behind the film is extremely risky: It's an obvious attempt to undo years of Hollywood insensitivity and spite toward members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, particularly young men in the church's missionary program.
However, there is always a possibility that such a film could offend the core audience if the material is too sensationalized. On the other hand, if the movie is too authentic, it could easily turn off non-Mormon audiences.
But somehow, Dutcher, the film's writer, director, producer and co-star, avoids falling off his self-imposed high wire without incurring too much damage to himself or the members of his relatively unknown cast.
One who comes off particularly well is Matthew Brown, who stars as Elder Brandon Allen, newly arrived in Los Angeles. The product of a broken home, this "greenie" missionary is having trouble explaining just why he's there in the first place. In fact, he nearly goes back to Kansas after his first day and probably would, if not for his companion, Elder Mark "Pops" Dalton (Dutcher), a 29-year-old convert with enough passion for the work for both of them.
Under Pops' watchful eye and encouragement, Elder Allen begins his missionary work in earnest, which includes trying to convert a Catholic family, as well as resist temptations and doubts.
That's not such an easy thing to accomplish, especially with the lingering presence of Elder Kinegar (Michael Buster), a fellow missionary who's been studying Mormon-critical and downright anti-Mormon literature, and who keeps trying to grow seeds of doubt in Elder Allen's mind.
If that's not enough, there's also the perplexing question as to why Pops dropped out of medical school to serve a mission, as well as Elder Allen's attraction to a sister missionary, Janine Fronk (Jacque Gray).Comment on this story
It's in this final third that the movie falters a bit, as Dutcher begins to use easy storytelling shortcuts and resorts to cheap sentimentality that undercuts some of the more realistic and moving human drama that is going on. (The same goes for the "where are they now?" ending. Not only is it a clich, but it also eliminates the need for a sequel, which would probably be welcomed.)
But even those problems can't undo the picture, which also benefits from good performances. Brown makes a sympathetic lead, and as Pops, Dutcher is stern but compassionate. The real surprise of the cast, though, is DeSean Terry, who plays Elder Banks, a black missionary. A last-minute replacement in the cast, Terry commands attention every time he's onscreen, and he does so without committing the acting errors that newcomers sometimes make (such as mugging for the camera).
Of course, that's not meant to slight Dutcher, who has made a first-class production on a shoestring budget. He's clearly a talent and could have a bright future in filmmaking, even mainstream filmmaking if given half a chance if he even wants such a career.
"God's Army" is rated PG for brief violence (a scuffle), vulgarity (some juvenile practical jokes) and use of a few mild profanities (much tamer than what's on TV these days).