The Best Two Years

on February 20, 2004 by Wade Major
More than four years after Richard Dutcher's missionary-themed "God's Army" effectively launched the still-growing Mormon independent film movement, writer/director Scott S. Anderson has brought it back to where it began in "The Best Two Years." Like Dutcher's film, "The Best Two Years" is an earnest and impressively polished attempt at providing an inside look at the experiences of full-time Mormon missionaries, though its foreign setting and broader sense of humor give it ample leeway to carve a distinct identity of its own.

Adapted by Anderson from his original stage play, "The Best Two Years" focuses on the trials and travails of two pairs of American missionaries serving in the Dutch city of Haarlem. As he nears the end of his two-year service, Elder Rogers (KC Clyde) finds himself spiritually and emotionally worn--an unlikely candidate to break in a newly-arrived junior companion like Elder Calhoun (Kirby Heyborne) who, despite his small-town Oklahoman gawkiness and a painful inability to speak or understand so much as a word of Dutch, is bursting with unbridled enthusiasm. The irony of the pairing is a source of endless amusement for their flatmates--the incessantly perky Elder Van Pelt (Cameron Hopkin) and his sturdy, stoic senior companion Elder Johnson (David Nibley)--though they too are soon touched by unforeseen events precipitated by Calhoun's innocent ardor.

There's no denying that "The Best Two Years" is first and foremost a movie made by Mormons for Mormons, rife with inside jokes and references that will completely escape anyone not steeped in the culture. At the same time, it is not entirely without crossover appeal. Like "God's Army" and "The Other Side of Heaven," it steers clear of the simplistic, polemical assaults too often associated with religious films, instead approaching the thorny issues of faith and devotion via the personal struggles and shared triumphs of the young missionaries themselves. Favoring character over caricature, it puts a human face on the white shirts and black nametags, helping further demystify an aspect of Mormon culture that many outsiders still can't fully comprehend.

Production values are especially impressive for a film of this budget level, the exceptional use of Dutch locales--superbly photographed by Gordon C. Lonsdale--going a long way to counterbalance its inherited theatricality. Also noteworthy is the picture's first-rate collection of original songs by Michael and Scott McLean and John Batdorf. Performances, too, are uniformly natural and convincing, particularly the chameleon-like Heyborne, increasingly something of a niche star in Mormon cinema. With a gift for striking an almost Chaplinesque balance between broad humor and heartfelt sentiment, a transition to more mainstream fare seems imminent.

Arriving as it does during a year that has already seen audiences inundated with films about religion and politics--previously taboo subjects in Hollywood--"The Best Two Years" faces undeniable obstacles in reaching beyond its core audience of Latter-Day Saints. Then again, in the face of pre-election nastiness, a witty, soulful, optimistic look at the best of human nature may be just what the doctor ordered. Starring KC Clyde, Kirby Heyborne, David Nibley, Cameron Hopkin, Scott Christopher and Michael Flynn. Directed and written by Scott S. Anderson. Produced by Michael Flynn and Scott S. Anderson. A HaleStorm release. Drama. Rated PG for thematic elements. Running time: 108 min.

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