Duck Beach To Eternity
Salt Lake Film Festival
Directors: Hadleigh Arnst, Stephen Frandsen, Laura Naylor
Hitting close to home, the screening of Duck Beach To Eternity was definitely the most interesting of the films I saw at the festival over the weekend. The documentary follows four Mormon singles who travel to Duck Beach, North Carolina for the annual "Mormon Spring Break"––where young (and "old") LDS hopefuls go to mix and mingle with their own as they search for their eternal companion. The film's stars include Melissa Magleby, a beautiful, blonde, 23-year-old dancer from Provo; Bryan Witchurch, a mousy Latin teacher breaching his early 30s who lives in New York; Stacey Ford, a mid-30s divorcee and career woman from Washington D.C.; and Ryan Boughman, a bronzed, built, 36-year-old real estate agent residing in Salt Lake City. The doc begins with interviews to set up the characters, and their reasons for making the trip to Duck Beach. Once there, the camera follows them as they attend parties, go to church and interact with the opposite sex. Sounds like an episode of the Real World, right? Take out the alcohol and sex, and add in some gospel doctrine and the whole "search for an eternal companion" creep factor, and you can't tell the difference.
As someone who grew up in the Utah Mormon culture and self-extricated at the tender age of 19, none of the ridiculousness presented in this film surprised me. The filmmakers interview the women, who admit that, once you pass your mid-20s as an LDS single, you become an old hag who no one wants to wed, and that it's completely up to the men to choose their companion––all the women can do is make sure they look like Heidi Klum and complement their good looks with the spirituality of Mother Theresa. Then the camera turns on the men, who make rounds of the beach looking for the prettiest girls to invite to their party, commenting on the "endless buffet" (Ryan's words verbatim) of women available to them at home in Utah, and how, by the end of the weekend, they'll have to lower their expectations. The doc is full of laughs, but probably only for those familiar with Mormon eccentricities, so I'm not sure how it would translate to a culturally removed audience. The gross superficiality, '50s-era sexism and caricature depictions of Mormons would definitely cross over to any viewers, however––or so I thought. These aspects of the film had me thinking throughout that the filmmakers must be ex-Mormons like me––no one else could portray the culture and faith as accurately while pointing out the Church's incongruities and poking fun at its members' insanity. Matt Stone and Trey Parker have nothin' on these guys!
It was mainly the editing that made me think this. Melissa perpetuates the dumb blonde/Regina George stereotype in all of her scenes, enhanced as the film cuts to Bryan, whose interviews and actions immediately contradict what she says and does. For example, Melissa, while talking about her faith, gushes that she thanks god every day for making it so easy for her to believe. She admits that she's no "scriptorian"––everything she believes is a result of the warm, fuzzy feelings she gets inside. The film then immediately cuts to Bryan, who says that true faith comes from studying, and that no one can call themselves a true believer based solely on feeling. In another scene, Melissa self-righteously boasts that she "even made an effort to include Bryan," who's shunned by the more attractive Duck Beach debutants. As we hear him praise Melissa for being so kind, and admit that he thinks they had a connection, we're watching an overhead camera at a pool party where Bryan tries to dance with her and she turns away and forms a tight dance circle with her friends as Bryan is left on his own. These juxtapositions happen throughout the film, making the characters seem more and more absurd. Even Stacey, who is older and seems to have been through some "shit" (she admits her vice is swearing, even though the way she does it sounds like she picked up the habit the day they started shooting her for the film), has completely ridiculous moments, like when she admits that she makes little "deals" with god every day: "I pray for him to help me find a good parking spot––and I always get the BEST spot!"
Here's where it gets really crazy: so the film ends and I'm anxious for the Q&A, as I have a lot of questions for the filmmakers on how non-Mormon audiences are reacting to Duck Beach To Eternity––everyone's going to think Mormons are even crazier than Romney makes them out to be! The three directors are joined by none other than Melissa! "Wow," I think. "I can't believe she's here. This movie must have been a total spoof! Joke's on us!" Someone asks how she got involved, and she describes how she was approached by the filmmakers, and was hesitant to say yes because she didn't know them. "My first concern was how the church was going to be portrayed, that was most important," she says. "And then me, of course." Waiiiittt a second … I raise my hand and ask, "So … how do you think you were portrayed?" Are you ready for this? She says she was happy with the film: "I just noticed I touch my hair too much, I have to work on that!"
So there you have it … except, I'm not sure what "it" is. Either Duck Beach To Eternity is completely unaware of itself––its filmmakers (one of whom is an active Mormon) truly believe they made an objective film for the sake of enlightening and entertaining their audience, and the subjects are oblivious to how shallow and absurd they look––or we're all being punk'd.
Duck Beach To Eternity