As part of my movie watching for TGGeeks I’ve decided to take a look at the first of a trilogy of films for the LGBTQ community that has probably flown under most people’s radar, and the film I’m going to examine The Falls.
Elder RJ Smith is going on a mission for the Mormon Church, or more appropriately named, The Church Of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. He is very devout in his beliefs and wants to make his family proud. He does have one minor concern though… While most missionaries are sent far away from home, the church has chosen to send him to work in an area only 6 hours from where he lives.
Enter Elder Chris Merrill. While Elder Smith is considered a “greenie” in missionary terms, Elder Merrill has been on the field for a while, and he comes from a respectable family as his father is in the Quorum of the 12 Apostles for the church. Their companionship as missionaries is awkward as they’re getting to know each other, but Elder Smith appears to be eager to start the missionary work nonetheless.
Things go a bit weird after a time. They befriend an investigator who drinks and smokes pot, which places them both an awkward situation. Elder Merrill is also having a crisis of faith, and during a moment of emotional support from Elder Smith in a restaurant/bar a couple of guys and taunt them for being missionaries. After being called “faggot” Elder Smith (off screen) decks him and he is sent to the ER. Back at their apartment, the Elders have a heart to heart conversation, and that is when any remaining barriers between them begin to break down.
This is not the first movie or story about forbidden love between missionaries. It’s been going on in real life long before The Falls was ever made. I should know for it happened to me, although my own personal story took a different direction than the one that writer/director Jon Garcia told of Elders Smith and Merrill. From a technical standpoint this film is somewhat uneven. There are elements that are meant to look accurate in representing the LDS Church and mission life. Then again there are other elements that are way off. Early on Elder Smith meets his Zone Leader, a missionary named Elder Harris, but as Elder Merrill tells Elder Smith during a scolding, all missionaries are to be with their companions at all times, and Elder Harris is always seen alone. Now while this may not seem like much of an issue to an average watcher, this was something that I personally found to be a glaring error. However, despite any other technical errors that this film may have, what makes it a success is the story of these two missionaries. The casting of Nick Ferrucci as RJ Smith and Ben Farmer as Chris Merrill is delightful. While they do come off as a bit older than the standard 19 to 20 year old missionary, they have a wonderful chemistry together, and individually each one is fully immersed in his own character helping to do more than just make their roles believable, but actually come across as alive and real. When the story finally takes their companionship to a deeper, forbidden (by the church standards) level, their dedication to these roles remains 100% because if either of them had delivered anything less then this film would completely collapse. Everything’s hinges on the two of them for The Falls to succeed, and it does succeed because of them. This film also has one incredible scene that proves without any shadow of a doubt that just because a movie was independently produced with a cast that isn’t made up of big box office draws does not in any way diminish the talent and energy that went into making it. In one of the most powerful scenes towards the end of The Falls we see RJ sit before a local leader of the church and he delivers a speech that will make your hair stand up. In what was essentially a one-shot take, Ferrucci’s emotional monologue is nothing but perfection, which is beyond amazing in of itself given that the lines at the end of the monologue weren’t in the script, but ones that he thought up himself. To start such a scene with measured control and to then let the emotions come out, building on the intensity and depth of those emotions is something that all serious actors wish to achieve, and Ferrucci does more than achieve it. He owns it. The scene literally becomes alive with its own breath and heartbeat, creating for one of the most emotionally honest moments in this entire film. For anyone who enjoys watching powerful acting, this scene with Ferrucci alone makes The Falls a film worth looking at.
Despite the technical flaws of this film, Garcia’s writing and directorial approach still comes off as more honest in regards to the church. The same themes were brought up in 2003’s Latter Days, but elements of the church in that movie were given a more medieval approach and treatment. The Falls still approaches the same subject matter, but not in a manner that is melodramatic or tantamount to being the Spanish Inquisition. Instead by being less exaggerated The Falls becomes more visceral with how its story is told. This is a film that, if you’re open to it, will leave you changed after watching it. As for myself, being a gay Mormon, I found the film reopened an old wound as it successfully brought me back to my days as a missionary and being attracted to another Elder in the area, and the fact that this film was able to do that, in spite of its technical flaws, is a testament to the quality and purity of intent in telling the story about these two Mormon Missionaries as they dealt with their feelings of love for each other.