As part of my movie watching for TGGeeks I’ve decided to take a look at the third and final film of a trilogy for the LGBTQ community that has probably flown under most people’s radar, and the film I’m going to examine is The Falls: Covenant of Grace.
It’s been 7 years since we first saw RJ Smith and Chris Merrill as Missionaries for The Church Of Jesus Christ Of Latter-Day Saints (shown in The Falls), and there have been some changes in the lives of these two men. Chris is no longer in Pharmaceutical Sales and has instead chosen to apply for Law School. RJ has relocated from Seattle and is now living in Portland and working as an Editor for some publication, as well as continuing to write books. When the film starts we realize it has been a full year since RJ and Chris have been together, and they are going to try to “start over.” Unfortunately it doesn’t go very well. Their reunion is awkward at first as they don’t quite know how to relate to one another, especially considering how RJ had disrupted the Anniversary Celebration for Chris’ parents back in Salt Lake City some years earlier. After a time they manage to relax and lower their barriers just enough for some feelings of love and intimacy to return between the two of them. Then there is the issue of this new friend that RJ has, another returned missionary who got sent home for feelings of same-sex attraction with his companion, only this young man only has eyes for RJ. Unfortunately that is the least of their worries as two major events occur that rock the worlds of both of them. First is the edict from the Church stating that children of same-sex couples will not be baptized into the church, and the second is the sudden passing of Chris’ mother.
Chris seems doesn’t seem too taken aback by this news from the Church as he is on the same path that RJ was on when we saw him in The Falls: Testament of Love. He continues to adhere to the principles of the church, he prays regularly and continues to wear his Temple Garments, whereas RJ started to separate himself from all of that towards the end of Testament, and believes himself to be essentially divorced from the Church. That doesn’t alter his reaction when he learns of this news as he finds himself deeply offended that an institution like the LDS Church would make a move like that. For him this only solidifies his resolve. Then there is the issue of the passing of Chris’ mom. When RJ and his father agree to an invitation from Chris to attend the memorial it reopens feelings of unhappiness and even some resentment with Chris’ family. However, it isn’t until Noah Merrill (Chris’ father) sees RJ experience a severe panic attack and then watches his son go to RJ’s side and be there and help him ride the attack out. Later he sees a Gay Pride celebration where there is very briefly a sign remembering those whose lives were tragically lost at the Pulse shooting in Orlando. This stirs something in Noah as he feels his heart become significantly softened towards the disenfranchised, and very much discriminated and persecuted, LGBTQ+ community. But is this enough to turn the tide of the Church, and can RJ and Chris ever find the type of happiness they’re both searching for?
Writer/director Jon Garcia has done something incredible. He has managed to go 3 for 3 with Covenant, and has also managed to not give just a repeat of either of the first two movies. This film does have a callback to The Falls in the form of Ryan Woodrow (Curtis Edwards Jackson), the returned missionary who was sent home for being gay. While his own story does have some parallel to that of RJ’s, his ending becomes quite different because of RJ, who is having his own unexpected crisis of faith. RJ manages to provide some advice and support for Ryan that changes the trajectory of both of their lives. Ryan is on a path to have a much happier ending and quite a bit sooner than what RJ or Chris had when their missions ended. As for RJ and Chris, they are both faced with this black and white dilemma, and that is choosing love or choosing God. RJ has opted to choose love while Chris is choosing God despite the fact that they have both openly declared their love for each other, all because they are incapable of reconciling themselves with the church and its policies. This is a bold and very mature move on the part of Garcia. He could have easily left this alone with the very open ending given to us in Testament, but here took it a step further showing that many LGBTQ+ people, who have been cut out from the church, still feel that incredibly deep attachment. He presents what could be a relationship breaking ordeal between Chris and RJ, but when those two men have their own personal epiphanies it puts them in a position to make the declaration that they are indeed worthy in the eyes of God, and that they are also equally worthy of all the blessings that God and the Church have to offer them, culminating in a ceremony that quite literally had me crying.
As always the performers here are top-notch. All of the regulars from the previous two films have returned, that being Nick Ferrucci as RJ, Benjamin Farmer as Chris, Bruce Jennings as Noah Merrill, and Harold Phillips as Tom Smith (RJ’s father). Where The Falls was primarily Ferrucci’s film, and Testament of Love placed the greater emphasis on Farmer, Covenant of Grace splits the attention evenly down the middle, which only makes sense given where each of these characters are at this point of the story. If a successful relationship is to come out of this for those two characters then the film would need to give them equal time, and those two continue to work some wonderful magic together. In The Falls Ferrucci had his acting moment of brilliance all alone in a room (while talking to the camera that served as his Bishop), and in Testament of Love Farmer had his shining bit of acting while alone in a bathroom crying. Here, they again each have their own moments that strong actors live for, but this time they each got to share that moment with the other. Farmer is there on screen with Ferrucci as we see RJ nearly crumble due to a panic attack, and then later Ferrucci shares his screen time with Farmer as Chris succumbs to grief over the passing of his mother. These moments of tenderness are what give Covenant of Grace its emotional truth, especially in light of the issue that it brings up regarding the Church policy on children of same-sex couples. Garcia has also managed to very cleverly not make the policy the hot-button issue for this film and turn it into a public service rant. Instead it just sits there in the background to serve merely as a reminder of this new spiritual obstacle that RJ and Chris must overcome if they want to be truly happy. He uses it as a catalyst to bring RJ and Chris to some common ground where they can then start to build something new.
The Falls: Covenant of Grace might not have some of the shocking elements that were brought up in either of the first two films, but that does not diminish what it does accomplish. For RJ and Chris, as well as with Noah and Tom, we see them finally come to a place of healing and reconciliation where they can feel free to be who they are, and the two times that I have seen this film (Yes, I have watched it twice!) I too have rediscovered a place of peace in my heart. Because of the power and integrity of all three of these films, especially with The Falls: Covenant of Grace, I can find myself standing alongside RJ and Chris and say, despite what any organization might argue, that I am a Proud Gay Mormon.