Had I not known The Falls was part of this year’s Vancouver Queer Film Festival (August 16 to 26), I would not have realized it was “A Gay Film” until about halfway through. Until then, it tells the story of a quiet and rather awkward young man, RJ Smith (Nick Ferrucci), off to perform his mission and spread the good Mormon word as part of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
RJ is paired with Chris Merrill, a more experienced missionary who serves as both mentor and friend. The two, referring to one another as Elder Smith and Elder Merrill, as is the Mormon custom, give us a glimpse into the missionary routine of getting up bright and early, praying, studying, spreading the word, attending follow-up (potential) conversion appointments and, of course, more praying.
Just as Elder Smith begins to learn the ropes and gain confidence in his endeavour, we begin to see cracks in Elder Merrill’s disposition. Put off by a the combination of potential conversion dinner-turned-ideological ambush, an attempted assault by homophobic yokels, and his own underlying doubts about Mormonism, we start to see the real Chris, as opposed to Elder Merrill. Humanity shines through in his growing crises of faith and, we will soon learn, identity. As he continues to question his beliefs and the teachings of his faith, Chris becomes increasingly dismissive of his missionary responsibilities and bolder in matters of the heart.
The curveball – that is, if you haven’t heard a word about the film and you forget you’re watching it at the Queer Film Festival – is thrown when RJ and Chris embrace. There really aren’t any obvious hints dropped before the two kiss. The subtlety pays off. The stakes for the viewer automatically double – it becomes not only the story of two young men deeply troubled by their own questioning of the faith they deeply love, but the story of two young closeted gay men giving into their impulses and falling in love after years of outer and self-repression, and this, under the judging gaze of their strict religion.
I had barely cracked a smile through the first half starring Elder Smith and Elder Merrill, but when I was properly introduced to RJ and Chris, I couldn’t help but laugh aloud at some of the inappropriate humour (from the Mormon standpoint) being thrown around. The two slowly stop worrying about being Mormon and instead, just are. When they go to a second meeting with Rodney (Brian Allard), a military man back from Iraq who was honourably discharged and now suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, the encounter is peppered with moments of stoner humour gold, largely because it comes out of nowhere. Let’s just say RJ and Chris, having now pushed the envelope regarding their sexuality, decide to stay aboard the experimentation train. The blazed-yet-astute and also quite funny Rodney helps blow open the boys’ closet doors by not being shocked at all by their being gay, and relating what they’re currently going through to some of his own experiences… “Ain’t nobody straight in a foxhole.”
Eventually, the relationship between RJ and Chris comes to a head as they are forced to deal with their new perceptions, of themselves and of their religion, community, and family members, which they know do not deal well with “people like them”.
Director Jon Garcia handles the plot carefully and avoids the all-too-easy religious attack and mudslinging one might expect in a film focusing on gay Mormon men. Instead, topics of repression and strict religious vocation are touched upon realistically and respectfully, letting the story of one man finding himself – and another man – shine through with grace and dignity.
The Falls (115 min.) premieres in Canada as part of the Vancouver Queer Film Festival on Sunday, August 19 at 5:00 p.m. at Empire Granville 7 Cinemas.