Let me start with the easy stuff: Once I was a Beehive is terrific fun. Within the sub-genre of ‘Mormon films,’ we’ve seen plenty of excellent serious films, many of them about missionaries. Maclain Nelson, who co-wrote and directed Beehive, even starred in one: The Saratov Approach. But the comedies haven’t been much good, ranging from the mediocre The Singles Ward to the execrable The Home Teachers. What we haven’t had up to now is a comedy made with intelligence, insight, humanity and good-hearted affection for the quirks and oddities of Mormon culture. I know that comedy’s hard. Still, I can’t begin to describe how good it feels to see Once I was a Beehive, a genuinely funny movie that avoids every potential misstep and creates believable human characters and derives its humor from carefully observed and beautifully realized actual people; a comedy, in short, that just plain works.
The movie begins with Lane Speer (Paris Warner), on her way to a camping trip with her Mom (Amy Biedel) and Dad (Adam Johnson). She’s fifteen, there’s a party she wants to go to, and she doesn’t particularly want to go camping. But her good-natured Dad teases her out of her bad mood, and we see the bond between them, and when they get into their canoe and head for the wild, what we see is a real family, outdoorsy and close-knit.
Cut to Dad’s funeral. Cancer. And Lane is quietly devastated.
Cut ahead a year. And Mom Speer is engaged to remarry, to a Mormon guy, Tristan Samuelson (Brett Merritt). And they’re going on a three week honeymoon, and they have arranged for Lane to spend those weeks with Tristan’s sister, Holly (Hailey Smith). And Holly’s daughter, Phoebe (Mila Smith), is sort of a brilliant mess, with a serious anxiety disorder, a therapy dog she can’t be parted from, and a sort of needy nerdiness. Enter Sister Carrington (Lisa Clark), an obnoxiously enthusiastic Young Women’s President, who pressures both Phoebe and resolutely non-LDS Lane to come to Girls’ Camp.
Clark is initially very funny in the role, but in her characterization, I thought I identified the film’s first major pitfall; that kind of cartoonish caricature wears pretty thin pretty quickly. I needn’t have worried. As Carrington’s exquisitely planned (and scrapbooked) schedule falls apart, so does the character, and Clark’s performance shifts, turns Carrington into a real person, vulnerable and snappish. Hailey Smith gives a quieter, still funny, but equally nuanced performance as Holly. And then they arrive at their campsite, and Barta Heiner rides up in a motorcycle.
In a rational universe, Barta Heiner would be recognized as the national treasure she really is; both the best acting teacher in the country, and an actress at the level of Meryl Streep and Judi Dench. That’s not hyperbole, though I also admit to a certain prejudice; she has been my revered friend and colleague for nigh on thirty years. In Beehive, she plays Nedra, the Girls’ Camp director and a tough and crusty outdoorswoman. Poor Lane, who by now is totally weirded out by the whole Mormon-centric Girls’ Camp experience, immediately recognizes a kindred spirit, and decides to stick around.
And a good thing she does. Because of her father, Lane has skills the other girls lack–she can set up a tent, read a map, cook a tasty meal over a campfire. And we also see her basic, essential kindness, also learned from her father, we presume. She befriends odd little Phoebe, helps her come out of her shell, helps hide, and protect, her therapy dog.
There are ten girls at this camp, and all are fully realized characters, both in the screenplay and through their performances. Clare Niederpruem is particularly strong, as Bree, Sister Carrington’s daughter, whose immediate, instinctive reaction to self-reliant Lane is essentially that of Elphaba to Galinda. And vice-versa. (Everybody sing along: “Loathing, unadulterated loathing, for your face, your voice, your clothing!”) But the movie really works based on the performances of Paris Warner and Mila Smith, as Lane and Phoebe. Both girls are tremendous. At times, Smith comes across as a precocious little female version of Sheldon Cooper; at times, she’s a frightened child with an anxiety disorder who just wants her doggie. These two performances make the movie–the grown-up actors, all of whom are terrific, are really there in support the two girls.
And it’s all pretty funny. There’s a scene where the girls, challenged to pair up and create, with a partner, a ‘spirit animal’ that defines something about themselves, give us a pretty hilarious menage of lions and dogs and (in the case of Lane and Phoebe) Galapagos tortoises. A little later, Sister Carrington reveals her ‘spirit animal.’ When Lisa Clark said ‘cougar,’ I laughed out loud. It was just a little throwaway joke, without the set-up-payoff-reaction shot structure of most movie jokes, but it nailed me. You know that obnoxious faux-profound line ‘I never told you it would be easy. I said it would be worth it?’ In this movie, it’s a punch-line, and a funny one. But also not in a mean-spirited sort of way.
I have a feeling that people who have been to Girls’ Camp would find the movie funnier than I did. And, let’s face it, Girls’ Camp is, in our culture, as much an exercise in indoctrination as it is a fun camping experience for teenaged girls. This movie faces that reality, finds a way to make it funny, but it does so with some real affection, and with this perspective: Girls’ Camp is about a lot more than just Mormon-centric preachifying.
That’s a fine edge. Does this movie make fun of Young Women’s programs, and especially, of Girls’ Camp? Yes. Does it recognize how relentlessly didactic Girls’ Camp can get, with every hike an object lesson and every task a sermon? Yes. Those are all fine subjects for satirical comedy, and the movie realizes the comedic potential inherent in each. But does the movie ultimately suggest that Girls’ Camp can provide a genuinely empowering experience for young women? That it’s about friendship and fellowship and kindness as much as it’s about ‘Trial of Faith’ scavenger hunts? Yes. That’s a thin line for a movie to tread, and I applaud Nelson and his whole team for treading it so dextrously.
(I don’t want to give away too much, but there’s one choice the movie might have made that would have ruined it, I think, and which, gratefully, it decided not to make. Comment for further enlightenment).
There’s one final issue I’d like to raise. Is this a feminist movie? Is this a movie likely to be applauded by Mormon feminists, or should it be? It is, after all, a movie with an almost entirely female cast. (There’s one guy at camp with them, the bishop, who apparently spends the entire week in his tent listening to an audiobook version of The Hunger Games; a pretty good joke right there.) It’s a movie about female leaders, about a Young Women’s President, and also about Bree, a Laurel President, who learn how to be real leaders over the course of Girls’ Camp. It’s about women with genuine leadership skills, about strong, independent, powerful women. It’s about Nedra, the older woman played by Barta, with a military background and wonderful compassion and friendship for young Lane. It’s about teenaged girls who overcome cattiness and cliqueish-ness and selfishness and grow, as friends, as women, as Christians. (It’s also, in one of its funnier scenes, about women pretty shamelessly objectifying hot young male forest rangers). Best of all, not one modesty lecture. Never once.
I consider myself a Mormon feminist, to the extent that I can be, given my gender. But, sure, yeah. It’s a movie about one official LDS program that really does try to empower young women. I’d say, sure, it’s a feminist film, maybe not with a capital F, but in its own quietly effective way.
Two final, personal notes. Full disclosure: I know and consider myself friends with many, if not most of the people in this movie. Not the kids; most of the grown-ups. Yes, that absolutely means that I was prejudiced for it to be good. Get over it.
Also this: there’s a testimony scene at the end of the movie. And I mostly dislike testimony scenes in LDS movies. And see, here’s the thing: I have this weird medical thing, a product of my chemo-therapy, where the tear duct in my right eye is damaged. I tend to cry a lot, even when I’m not remotely sad. So, in that testimony scene, I noticed my right eye was leaking a lot. And I thought, ‘well, that’s annoying.’ And then I noticed my left eye was leaking just as much. And my left eye isn’t damaged at all. So that happened too. Seriously, people, go see this.