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Meet the non-Mormons

The LDS-produced film Meet the Mormons debuted this weekend.  It was shown in 317 theaters and grossed $2.7 million, which ranks it as #11 for the weekend.  That's quite successful.  That's very impressive.  One thing that did surprise me was that it grossed nearly as much as many other movies which were shown in 4 to 6 times as many theaters.  As far as theater count goes, it ranked #19 for the weekend.  So I wondered why would the movie do so well in the 317 theaters where it showed?

I looked up the movie on Rotten Tomatoes.  This gave a more telling story than any other article I could imagine.  There were 8 critic reviews, all negative.  It got a score of 0% from critics (meaning all 8 of the critics labeled it "rotten", and none labeled it "fresh").  It got an average rating of 4.8/10 from these critics.  On the other hand, the audience rating is at a rather remarkable high of 91%.  Why such a discrepancy?  Contrast, for example, Guardians of the Galaxy.  It got a 91% critic review and 95% audience review.  Even Hook, with a 30% critic review and 76% audience review has a much smaller gap than Meet the Mormons.

What I'm about to say is my opinion.  I have very little fact to back it up, aside from the numbers from Rotten Tomato.  I believe that the high rankings from the audience can be largely attributed to Mormons who saw the film because it was a church-produced film.  In fact, it wouldn't surprise me if some Mormons went on Rotten Tomato and rated the film without even watching it.  But I believe that nearly all of the audience ratings came from active Mormons who watched the movie and liked it because it portrays them in a positive light.

From asking an active Mormon, an ex-Mormon, and a never-Mormon about the film, one might possibly think that three entirely different films were being described.  From the active Mormon's perspective, it might do a wonderful job of describing exactly what Mormons are like.  From an ex-Mormon's perspective, it might be nothing more than propaganda to make the church look good when it's really not.  From a third-party perspective, it might be confusing as to what the big deal is.  I haven't seen the film, and I don't plan to.  Sure, I'd go if a Mormon invited me--especially if ey offered to pay for my ticket.  But I don't feel a curiosity to know its content compelling enough to go out of my way to see it.

So why am I writing a huge blog post about it?  Well, because seeing news articles about it got me thinking.  Deseret News touted the film as being in the top ten this weekend at the box office.  I believe that was on Sunday, so the numbers either only counted Friday and Saturday or projected more sales for Sunday than actually happened.  Either way, the film ended up being #11, which really isn't much of a difference.  But the church's newspaper is certainly going to do the best it can to promote the film and put it in the best light possible.  I'm not personally surprised that the film did so well its opening weekend because Elder Holland, one of the church's leaders, put out a video encouraging church members to watch the movie, request it in their local theaters, and even buy out an entire session of the movie.

So, I started thinking, why the big discrepancy between the critics and the viewers?  I believe the answer is rather simple.  Mormons love the movie because it shows that they are fun, loving, caring, every-day, normal people.  Why do critics not like it?  They give many reasons.  It shies away from any controversial topics about the church--in particular, its history and its current views on things like homosexuality and women in the priesthood.  They feel like it's a one-sided image of the church and that it does a poor job of understanding its target audience, assuming the target audience is intended to be those who know very little about the church.

What I thought of is that Mormons so often say things like "You don't understand us.  You don't know what we're really like.  Come and see."  And, many times, this is fair.  Many times people do have misconceptions about the LDS church.  In grad school, a fellow grad student asked me if I had currently or in the foreseeable future planned to have multiple wives.  One person I talked to asked if Mormons worshipped seagulls.  There were several things that I thought were rather silly notions that were actually sincere queries.  But what I think Mormons often don't realize is that they don't understand non-Mormons very well.  Too often, they live in a sort of bubble, protected by their own self-perceptions of their church and unaware of how it looks to outsiders. Critic Ben Kenigsberg writes:
One subject’s discussion of his efforts to “put the Lord first” exemplifies how the film preaches to the converted. The narration promises surprises (“This story may challenge what you think you know about the roles men and women play in Mormon homes”), but the movie might have started by examining its straw-man conception of the audience.
In Elder Holland's video, he asserts multiple times that the film is not intended as a proselytizing effort.  However, it seems that it comes across as such to people who are not members of the church.  That's one thing that I think sometimes Mormons don't understand about the way they talk to people.  They use phrases that are typical at church but sound really strange to people who are not familiar with the LDS culture.  I know the terminology well because I grew up in the church, so it may be less strange to me, but even still, I do quirk an eyebrow at some of the things that my Mormon friends and family say to me because, from an outsider's perspective, they're rather odd and preachy.

I have many Mormon friends who do a very good job of understanding the world outside of Mormonism.  Typically, these are the ones who are most liberal--who support marriage equality and sometimes even movements in the church like the Ordain Women movement, to allow women to have the priesthood.  But many Mormons seem to find difficulty understanding how other people view the world.  The Mormon worldview is very different from other world views.  I think sometimes Mormons fail to acknowledge or under-appreciate such differences.

So that's my best explanation for the gap between the critics and the audience for this film.  How Mormons see themselves and how they believe non-Mormons see them are both quite different from how non-Mormons see them.

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