About four or five years ago, my wife, kids and I discovered the Mormon film industry. I had been looking at some property in Utah at the time, and, knowing little or nothing about the Latter-Day Saints, began to read a little about them. I started with Richard and Joan Ostling's excellent Mormon America, read Jon Krakauer's wildly unfair polemic Under the Banner of Heaven, and graduated to books like ex-Catholic priest Isaiah Bennett's Inside Mormonism. I eventually became fascinated by the whole historical saga, visiting the Salt Lake City temple and even reading the first volume of the nine-volume historical novel of Mormon origins, The Work and the Glory.
But nothing really illuminated LDS culture, for me, like their movies. Unbeknownst to many Americans, Mormons have their own flourishing film industry. Hollywood-trained but devout Mormon actors, directors and cinematographers set about making increasingly sophisticated films with explicitly Mormon themes — such as God's Army (2000) or Charly (2002) — or, more typically, "family films" that have LDS culture and church activities as sort of the general background. While some Evangelicals might dismiss these films as dangerous propaganda, I think it would be more fair to say that they are an attempt to portray Mormon society and culture the way Mormons themselves see it.
And I have to say: My Catholic family loves many of these Mormon films. One of my wife's favorite movies is The RM (2003), a gentle comedy about a Returning (Mormon) Missionary who was promised all these blessings for his two-year sacrifice only to come home to discover his finacée has dumped him, his promised job has disappeared and BYU has turned him down flat. The film was produced by HaleStorm Entertainment, a pioneer of the burgeoning Mormon film industry that also produced family favorites like The Single's Ward, The Best Two Years, Mobsters and Mormons and the "mockumentary" Sons of Provo.
One reason we like these movies is that we can relate to the quirky details: They're all about the weird logistics of big families, the frustrations of living a PG lifestyle in an NC-17 world, and the outright hostility of the secular world toward any belief that is unusual or not mainstream. Even my hard-boiled, somewhat cynical California teenagers laugh out loud at the antics of these relentlessly clean-cut, overtly family-oriented movies.
Bottom line: If you want to know more about the culture from which Mitt Romney comes, go rent some Mormon movies at the local video store. You'll be pleasantly surprised.
If I had to pick one title to start with, I would probably choose Mobsters and Mormons. It's a light-hearted film about a New York mobster (Mark DeCarlo) whose entire family (wife and two kids) is relocated to Utah as part of the Witness Protection Program. The disconnect between the drinking, smoking, profane and often leering New Yorker and his nerdy Mormon neighbors in suburban Salt Lake City drives the comedic action. The film is a plea for inter-religious tolerance all around.
The New York mobster, naturally, is so blunt and insulting it's funny. "I can understand giving up the booze and the smokes," he tells his next-door neighbors, who invite him over to their home for dinner. "But what you people really need to give up is the baked goods! I ain't never seen fat people like I've seen in Utah!"
The LDS filmmakers no doubt decided to make their own movies to inspire and educate the members of their own church. But one side effect of these films that that they help non-Mormons better understand their neighbors.
From Mitt Romney to the clean-cut kids with white shirts and ties who knock on our doors, Mormons are an increasingly visible part of American society. We non-Mormons can be suspicious of them and their "weird" beliefs… or we can go rent The RM and laugh alongside them. You'll have a lot more fun doing the latter.