It’s time to “Meet the Mormons.”
That’s what the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints hopes with its first feature-length film premiering Friday, Oct. 10, in more than 300 theaters nationwide. The documentary, directed by Blair Treu, profiles six Mormons from around the world and aims to dispel the stereotype that every member is cut from the same cloth.
The film begins with narrator Jenna Kim Jones interviewing people in New York City's Times Square, asking what they know about Mormonism. Between their answers, clips from TV shows “30 Rock,” “Fletch,” “The Simpsons,” “Burn After Reading” and “South Park” are shown -- each poking fun at the religion. The film then presents a different take on Mormons. The audience meets black Bishop Jermaine Sullivan; Pacific Islander U.S. Naval Academy football coach Ken Niumatalolo; Costa Rican kickboxer Carolina Muñoz Marin; 92-year-old retired Army Air Corps Col. Gail Halvorsen; Nepalese humanitarian Bishnu Adhikari; and the formerly homeless missionary mom Dawn Armstrong.
"Many people are not familiar with our faith, and especially how culturally diverse the members are," Cindy Packard, a church member from Arizona, told AZCentral, about the film. "We hope the viewers will gain a greater understanding of the richness and diversity of our faith."
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the fourth-largest church in the United States. Founded in 1830 in upstate New York and now based in Utah, the church boasts more than 15 million members worldwide with 56 percent -- more than 6 million -- living in the United States. In pop culture, Mormons are often depicted as belonging to a culture of obedience and conformism. Members are often seen as Caucasian, believed to be polygamists and are called out for their strict practices such as rebuking the consumption of caffeine, alcohol and smoking.
A constant rallying point throughout the film is how Mormons get along with members of other faiths. For instance, Sullivan says he has a strong relationship with his sister, who is a Baptist. The same goes for Muñoz Marin and her Catholic father.
While the documentary is targeted at nonmembers, the Hollywood Reporter’s Frank Scheck points out that the film steers clear of the church’s history, tenets and controversies. “Instead, we're offered platitudes about the strength of friends and family, the importance of physical fitness, the joys of doing good deeds, and the importance of following the teachings of Jesus Christ,” Scheck writes.
So far, the film has been panned by critics. Martin Tsai from the Los Angeles Times says the film is limited mostly because it assumes that “the average Joe associates Mormonism more with ‘Sister Wives’ than Mitt Romney.” The New York Times’ Ben Kenigsberg offered a similar criticism, saying the film had a “straw-man conception” of its audience. The Salt Lake Tribune described the film as “not a documentary but an infomercial, meant less to inform than to introduce a sales pitch.”
Sullivan, one of the Mormons profiled, says the documentary achieved its goal. "It reflects the reality of what the church looks like," he said.
“Meet the Mormons” is rated PG. It runs 78 minutes.