Despite some obligatory surface similarities to its predecessor, "States of Grace" is a radical leap forward that should help to reinvent Mormon independent cinema as much as the first "God's Army" contributed to inventing it. Bravely tackling a variety of thorny issues from which other Mormon filmmakers, including Dutcher, had previously shied, this is a devastatingly powerful and profound look at the nature of faith and the grueling internal struggles that lead many to both embrace and reject religion.
It may be, in fact, that "States of Grace," which features an almost entirely new cast, will find its most welcome reception among non-Mormons less inclined to fixate on denominational minutiae than on broader themes of sin and redemption.
Switching locales from Hollywood to the nearby coastal community of Venice, California, Dutcher once again focuses on the experiences of two missionary companions, Elders Lozano (Ignacio Serricchio) and Farrell (Lucas Fleischer). Only this time it's a veteran missionary's simmering regrets, rather than a new missionary's lingering doubts, that set events in motion. Only days from completing his two years of service, Lozano's head is no longer in his work, creating a certain degree of friction with Farrell, his more eager junior companion. But a brief run-in with a local street gang, followed by a deadly drive-by shooting, changes everything. After saving the life of the gang member who nearly took his, Lozano undergoes a period of life- changing reflection even as the gangster, a fearsome, hulking man named Carl (Lamont Stephens), reconsiders the life he has lived versus the new one he has just been given.
As with "God's Army," Dutcher supplements his main story -- the developing relationship between Carl and the missionaries -- with subplots involving a homeless street preacher named Louis (Jo'Sei Ikeda) and Holly, the quiet but uncertain young woman (Rachel Emmers) who lives next door. But the distinction between plot and subplot grows increasingly less meaningful as Dutcher deftly weaves them all into a powerhouse finale all but guaranteed to leave no dry eye in the house.
Dutcher is clearly aware that what made "God's Army" so fresh and exciting is now well-worn territory thanks to subsequent efforts that have further explored the Mormon missionary experience from vantage points positive ("The Other Side of Heaven," "The Best Two Years"), negative ("Latter Days") and comical ("The R.M."). Accordingly, "States of Grace" aims beyond missionary life, even beyond Mormonism, as it considers the power of religion to change lives, and the self-destructive forces that remain an inextricable part of the human condition.
Many will no doubt accuse Dutcher of intentionally stoking the fires of controversy -- and they may be right. What "States of Grace" is not is an exercise in exploitation. Embracing the kind of brutal honesty that rarely leaves audiences undivided, Dutcher has tapped a fount of truth that is neither sanctimonious nor sentimental, an achievement further magnified by the fearless efforts of a uniformly gifted cast.
There is no question that "States of Grace" can often be an excruciating experience -- the evocation of pain, guilt and regret sometimes so intense that some may find themselves wondering why they bothered paying to see it. Audiences accustomed to timely respite from their discomfort are also in for a surprise -- longer than "God's Army" by 20 minutes and more leisurely paced throughout, this is clearly not a film for the casual dinner-and-a-movie crowd. On the other hand, those seeking thoughtful, passionate engagement on difficult subjects of concern to all people, regardless of faith, will find much to both discuss and debate.
Whether or not Dutcher has returned in triumph or ambitiously overreached will naturally be among those discussions -- though it will be hard, even for detractors, to deny him credit for his courage. On that count alone, "States of Grace" suggests that Dutcher has moved beyond his status as the pre-eminent Mormon filmmaker and joined the ranks of the best independent filmmakers in the world. Starring Ignacio Serricchio, Lucas Fleischer, Lamont Stephens, Rachel Emmers and Jo'Sei Ikeda. Directed and written by Richard Dutcher. Produced by Richard Dutcher, Dan Urness, Emily Pearson and Stin Hansen. A Main Street release. Drama. Rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of violence and mature thematic material. Running time: 128 min.