The Mission Review: Mormon Missionaries Take A Life-Changing Journey In A Somewhat Stagnant Doc [Sundance 2022]

Faith means something different to everyone, even for those who don't believe in a higher power. Perhaps that's why director Tania Anderson's documentary "The Mission" has a difficult time capturing many compelling or powerful moments on film as it follows four Mormon teens embarking on their religious rite of passage: a missionary trip to Finland. 

"The Mission" focuses on two young men and two young women as they leave their families behind for 18 months to travel abroad and spread the word of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Not all teens who choose to go on a mission for the Mormon church go to Finland; they could actually end up anywhere across the world. That only makes the prospect of trying to pull people into their faith that much more daunting, because these teens need to not only speak a whole new language, but speak it fluently enough in order to effectively deliver their message. 

Where "The Mission" succeeds is highlighting the uphill battle that these missionaries have on their trip. Anderson knowingly lets scenes linger in uncomfortable awkward silence as these kids walk up to total strangers on the streets of various towns and cities in Finland (many of which are unwilling to even greet the missionaries), trying to fulfill their holy task. If you've ever brushed off Mormon missionaries on the street or at your doorstep, this might give you a newfound respect for their cause, regardless of your own religious perspectives. There's something extremely admirable about watching young minds, who are very much still growing, believe in something so strongly that they're willing to do something that pushes them far outside of their comfort zone. Between that and the private moments in their constantly shifting living quarters (missionaries are relocated several times throughout their mission), it's still not compelling enough to sustain a roughly 90-minute runtime.

Unprecedented But Unremarkable

Though the Sundance description of "The Mission" touts an "unprecedented level of access into the journeys of missionaries," that doesn't exactly make that journey compelling on screen. I'm not sure if it's because the crew wasn't around their subjects enough across the span of their mission to gather enough coverage that truly captures the highs and lows of this life-changing experience, or if the subjects themselves simply didn't have any remarkable moments on their journey be it a crisis of faith or incredible religious breakthrough. At the same time, it's entirely possible that the most effective parts of their journey simply can't be captured on camera. The most dramatic instance, when one of the subjects is sent home after struggling with anxiety and panic attacks, doesn't even feel like it registers as a big deal. The missionary in question does make quite the profound statement about his faith when he expresses his disappointment in being sent home, but again, it's not made to feel like a peak in the narrative. 

Furthermore, "The Mission" fails to provide enough context about the fundamentals of the missionary trip. Though there are fleeting instances of certain restrictions or requirements, the film doesn't paint a thorough enough picture to fully get a grasp on the goals of the Mormon church. That might be difficult without turning into a documentary about the Mormon faith itself, but more insight into the proceedings would have been preferable. 

If there's one commendable through line in this documentary, it's that there's clearly significant growth in their subjects, albeit not a religious one. That's not to say the subjects didn't grow religiously, it's just not immediately apparent. The three missionaries who remain on their entire mission show dramatic improvement in their confidence and the manner in which they approach people with their message. Across their 18-month sojourn, they go from awkwardly approaching Finland's locals with stilted Finnish to speaking proudly and self-assuredly. It's perhaps the best evidence of how important this experience is for these teens. 

Otherwise, there's one key sequence towards the end of this documentary that speaks to the difficulty of capturing the importance of the young Mormons' mission. One of the female missionaries has the final meeting with a church superior after returning from her trip. Upon being informed that this is officially the end of her journey, she is asked to relinquish the nametag she's been wearing throughout the trip, and it reduces her to tears. It brings to mind the ending of "Captain Phillips" when Tom Hanks finally has an emotional breakdown after enduring so much trauma, and it encapsulates how much this experience means to this young woman.

Overall, "The Mission" seems to lack any profound moments or eye-opening revelations. Though Anderson shows great skill in crafting a cinéma vérité documentary, as her first feature-length documentary, she may need to spend more time with her subjects (or find more interesting ones) in order to find a more engrossing narrative. 

/Film Rating: 6 out of 10