‘The Fighting Preacher’ REVIEW

For many years filmmaker T.C. Christensen has made a career out of making sweet and inspirational, faith-based films for Latter-day Saint audiences. Many of these are set in the past and seek to tell part of Church history like The Cokeville Miracle or 17 Miracles. These movies are definitely not for everyone but if you like programs like When Calls the Heart or Little House on the Prairie than you will enjoy them. His latest effort, The Fighting Preacher, is a bit uneven but overall it succeeds in telling a sentimental true story about tolerance, kindness and how a Christian spirit will win over hate every time.

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The film is based on the experiences of Willard Bean (David McConnell); a boxing champion who in 1905 is called by the Church to move to the town of Palmyra, New York and make a home for himself and his family in the recently purchased Joseph Smith Farm. As the name implies, the home was once owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint prophet and founder Joseph Smith. Nearby is the Hill Cumorah which is where the prophet claimed to find (by the guidance of an angel) the gold plates he translated into ‘The Book of Mormon’. Unfortunately, the Saints were eventually pushed out of Palmyra by residents who feared the new religion and the fervor of its followers and after 85 years the town had remained free from all ‘Mormons’ as they were known at the time.

One would think after such a long time away from each other, the anger against the Latter-day Saints would have dissipated in Palmyra but this proved to not be the case for the Beans. They faced opposition and challenges trying to do normal things like purchase everyday necessities, get medical care and even helping their daughter get an education.

At first Willard is tempted to use his boxing skills to retaliate against the people but eventually he learns such problems are better solved by an offering of homemade pie rather than a fist to the face (if that description sounds too saccharine, than trust me. This is not the movie for you!).

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The casting goes a long way in making The Fighting Preacher work. McConnell is easy to relate to and has nice chemistry with Cassidy Hubert who plays his wife Rebecca (my only nitpick with her is she had very modern lipstick on). The little girl, Scarlett Hazen, who plays their daughter Palmyra is also adorable. She did a great job!

The rest of the cast is fine but there isn’t a huge attempt to flesh out people beyond a slamming of the door with a ‘get out of here you Mormons’ rebuke. As a former missionary, I have no doubt this was a reality, but as a movie, it comes across as forced. The script as a whole is clunky with dialogue that doesn’t feel natural or human.

For a better example of a similar plot with a much better script I recommend last year’s Jane and Emma. That film took the time to flesh out the characters and give authentic nuanced dialogue.

Even with its flaws, however, I still recommend The Fighting Preacher. It knows its audience and unlike some faith-based films, the message is very positive. It tells the viewer to accept people of all beliefs, and to be kind and loving to all men and women (even when it is not reciprocated). The performances are also strong enough to forgive a script I wish was better.

6 out of 10

smile worthy

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Screenwriting Interview w Melissa Leilani

Hi guys!  I had the cool experience today where I got to interview screenwriter Melissa Leilani and find out what it is like to write a script.  She was the main writer for a film I loved in 2015 called Freetown.

Freetown is a faith-based film but one that is approachable to anyone.  It tells the story of a man who must smuggle 6 missionaries out of Liberia during their brutal civil war.  Things are tense and Brother Abubakar is a man of practical faith mixed with a healthy dose of skepticism.  It makes him a very compelling character.

What I really appreciated about Freetown is that it told a compelling story and let the messsaging take care of itself.  Unlike many faith based films (that I still find some value in) I didn’t feel it was preachy or forcing a message upon me.  In fact, my friend Yusuf who is Muslim liked the film as much as I did.

Here are both of our reviews:

I think you might find it interesting to watch the film and then listen to the interview about her experience.  However, I also think it will be interesting if you are just interested in screenwriting or writing in general.  We do get off topic a few times (we have very similar movie and theater taste!).  She has a theater background so her transition from playwright to screenwriter was very interesting to me.

Anyway, this is only the 3rd interview I have done, so if you have any feedback that would be great.  I hope you enjoy it.

Freetown Review

freetownAs most of my readership is not Mormon you probably haven’t heard of the film Freetown which opens this week.  It is the story of missionaries for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (or Mormons) in Liberia in 1990.  At the time there was a brutal Civil War and a group called the krahn was systematically eliminated by the rebel forces.

This of course makes for a tense situation for the missionaries some of whom are krahn and it is determined by local leadership they must be taken to Freetown in Sierra Leone where the mission president is and things are safer.  There are 6 missionaries and a member named Brother Abubakar played by Henry Adofo.

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Abubakar is a man you don’t see often in faith based films. He has a strong faith but he is also extremely practical which makes him less optimistic than some of the naive young elders. Adofo is so good playing a well rounded man who is strong, scared, brave and weak all at the same time.  On one hand it seems like he resents having to deal with the elders and put his life at risk but on the other  you can tell it is a great honor and burden which he fears he might not succeed in.  I really related to his character and can imagine that most members would feel exactly as Brother Abubakar does in such a scary time.

Nevertheless, he crams all 6 of the elders into his small car and they face one challenge after another.  Whether its rebel base stops or running out of fuel I was completely engrossed in the journey.

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The entire cast is native African actors and they are all fine.  Some of the missionaries you can tell are new at acting but it fit their fairly innocent personas and didn’t bother me. As someone who was a missionary I thought they got the little details just right.  It might seem hard to believe Elders would pass out pamphlets to people waiting for a fairy after such a trek and in such a tense situation but they totally would.  The exuberance and faith in miracles they showed was just what such elders would do in the situation.  I loved one of the elders when they are finally free the greatest joy is they can teach after 6 months! That long not teaching as a missionary would feel like an eternity.

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Not to say that the elders were simplistic because they weren’t.  They face a lot of tough questions of when to lie, when to be brave, when to expect miracles and when to use your head. It felt like the way missionaries would actually behave and there were soft moments especially with the krahn elders that were very touching.

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I was surprised how gritty it got.  It is not a movie for small children.  Far too scary for them.  The rebels are pretty terrifying and will shoot women, even old women without giving it much thought. I flinched more than once and had to look away (I’m a violence wimp in movies!).    The missionaries come very close to being shot on several occasions and it is very tense.

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It also can be a very hopeful picture with moments of joy. The missionaries are still 19 year old boys and the cast has a good chemistry together.  It felt like an authentic group racing to get to safety while still maintaining their individual personalities and struggles.

Freetown is directed and written by Garrett Batty who did Saints and Soldiers and Saratov Approach and he does an excellent job crafting a story that should inspire anyone of any faith.  The preaching and Mormon dogma is at a minimum. I really think the average moviegoer would find it a touching, gripping story.

It also looks great with wonderful cinematography by Jeremy Prusso where we get the grandness of Africa contrasting with the tightness of the compact car.  I loved the music too.

I really loved everything about Freetown. It is a moving depiction of normal people of faith facing an extremely difficult situation in a real and honest way. If you can go see it!

Overall Grade A+  Content Grade C+

Here’s my youtube review if you want to check it out. Give it a thumbs up that would be awesome.