The Mission, 2022.
Written and directed by Tania Anderson.
A revelation of the inner lives of young Latter-day Saints missionaries, as they leave their homes for the first time and embark upon the most emotionally, physically, and psychologically challenging period of their lives.
Tania Anderson’s doc debut makes a full-footed attempt to grant insight into a group of people often dismissed as indoctrinated “bible bashers.” Regardless of your own religious beliefs, The Mission indeed successfully mines the humanity of young Mormon missionaries sent to spread their gospel.
Anderson’s film focuses on four American Mormon teenagers being sent to Finland – where, with just 1/57th of its population counted as Mormon, there’s an enormous current of religious skepticism and social focus on rationalism. To say that this mission represents quite the uphill struggle for the central quartet is an understatement, as Anderson’s film elucidates with clarity and empathy.
Again and again, no matter your own views on religious solicitation and youngsters who may effectively be reared into a belief system they know nothing beyond, The Mission conveys the myriad painful sacrifices made by these resilient and determined teens. The cost of religious duty, of being sent 5,000 miles away from friends and family to a culturally polar country, without any wider financial support no less, is a big ask of anyone, let alone teenagers still figuring out their own identities.
It’s at once excruciating and perversely amusing to see them grappling with the differences between their own set and the more severe Finns, who may ignore, flip the bird, or in one case even mockingly shout, “I believe in evolution!”. It can’t be discounted that the presence of a camera crew must surely make the locals even more wary of engaging.
This is all without getting into the language barrier issues; though the missionaries are trained in basic Finnish, it rarely rises above conversational utility for most. And so, attempting to change people’s entire worldviews without clear communication largely feels like a feckless endeavour, and one that often frustrates the kids themselves.
We see their confidence eroded and crushing self-doubt take hold, all while wrestling with feeling homesick (or “trunky,” as Mormons call it) during their two-year excursion. One of the subjects, a young man battling severe depression and anxiety, finds himself braced between slavish religious devotion and anger that any apparent God would dare let him feel like this, especially during one of the most important rites of passage in his life.
This is fittingly juxtaposed against the euphoria of a successful “conversion,” of course, and the simple joy of a cold call that actually results in the teens being invited into a person’s home for a chit-chat. Unsurprisingly, they have more fruitful results when dealing with Finns who can speak fluent English back to them.
It all adds up to a sympathetic portrait of seemingly good young people who believe they’re doing the right thing by disseminating their message across the world. Easy thought it might be for audiences to scoff when one of them calls their mission “the most important work going on on Earth right now,” such is the sobriety of their devotion.
It’s a shame however that Anderson’s film doesn’t really dig into the more potentially problematic aspects of Mormonism and religion as a whole; the view held by many that it’s closer to a cult, and especially the idea that these young people haven’t been given a venue to develop their own beliefs. These questions would’ve been interesting ones to hear the kids’ perspectives on, even if they likely would’ve defended Mormonism to the hilt.
By film’s end some of the participants are already keenly discussing the next step of their lives – of getting married and having kids despite still being so young – and it’s tough not to feel a pang of sadness at the thought that they might be sleepwalking along a prescribed conveyor-belt of life. That’s just one person’s opinion, of course, and though there’s a refreshing lack of judgment here, it might’ve been worthwhile to probe a little harder.
Still, this is a thoughtful examination of a group of young people trying to funnel their energies into something positive for the world and themselves, while doubling as an airy travelogue of Finland’s painterly beauty.
The viewer’s own religious values aside, The Mission offers an empathetic portrait of the sacrifices made by young American Mormons while spreading word about their faith.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.