Erica Hector Vital
Red Rock Review
Las Vegas Round The Clock
Written and Directed by Richard Dutcher
Review by: Erica Hector Vital
EVANGELIZIN’ IN THE HOOD
The images we associate with Mormonism are mild. White shirts, dark shoes,
black ties. Salesmen’s manners. But the history of any religion is fraught
with violence, bloodshed, the wages of sin, and hopefully, finally, the
saving grace of redemption. Writer/director Richard Dutcher, who is credited
with bringing a wider vision of the lives of Mormon missionaries to the
screen with God’s Army (2000), has with his new film, STATES OF GRACE,
constructed a story that in many ways follows the harsher, and thereby more
realistic, trajectory of salvation.
Dutcher’s opening scene in STATES OF GRACE is disarmingly standard. An
all-American game of b-ball, a Santa Monica beach, a group of young people
who could be any group of clean-cut, drug-free, good-natured Californians.
Well, definitely not standard. As a matter of fact, it is in the innocence
of this tableau, and the camaraderie of the crew on the court, an ethnic and
gender inclusive mix of young men and women of all stripes, that we are
hipped to the fact that the film contains a message. But the sense of the
idyllic is fleeting. Dutcher uses this quiet moment as a vehicle, and very
quickly drives the story and its characters into the center of the conflict
of how the devote survive temptation, and very often, just plain survive.
When two young missionaries, Elders Lozano and Farrell, General Hospital’s
Ignaccio Serricchio and “Huff”’s Lucas Fleischer, leave the court and the
safety of their circle to go about the work of saving souls on the streets
of Santa Monica, they bump into a group of souls just as young, just as full
of potential, but whose religion has been the gun, their church, fellow gang
The encounter, which ends in bloodshed, immedately reveals the secular side
of Elder Lozano as the uniform of the missionary is literally peeled away to
reveal a compromising past. This is one of the most powerful images of the
film, and Ignacio Serricchio, as Elder Lozano, handles such revelations with
a natural assurance. The camera loves him. The look of a young Eric Estrada
doesn’t begin to do Serricchio justice. It is in the ethnic beauty of that
face, and in the faces of Serricchio’s fellow cast members, that Dutcher
explores one of the questions that cross the minds of many outsiders when it
comes to the Church of the Latter Day Saints. It is the hot question of
race. Like the shirts and the ties of the missionary, there is a certain
heterogeneity associated with the Mormon church. A certain whiteness. But
Dutcher has inhabited STATES OF GRACE with a range of characterizations that
go beyond black and white. Elders and villains, bystanders and redemptors,
are a reflection of all races and all cultural experiences.
This is especially true in the case of Lamont Stephens’ portrayal of Carl,
the aggressor in the opening clash between the secular and the ordained.
Carl is a product of a life we have seen before: African-American, angry, a
soul that finds its identity in the adulation and the anguish of gang life.
And though we have seen it before, it is in bringing Carl’s journey to the
screen that Dutcher hopes to make a difference. The story of Carl and his
family is essential, it is the center of the film. It is through the
interaction of Lozano and Carl that we are reminded of the kinship between
saint and sinner.
Lozano’s fellow missionary, Lucas Fleischer as Elder Farrell, becomes an
unexpected reminder of the thin and necessary line between saint and sinner
when the girl next door, Rachel Emmers as Holly, threatens to shake the path
of his faith. With his quiet manner and all-American looks Elder Farrell is
the face of the Mormon “ideal.” Unlike Lozano whose history as a convert
informs as well as compromises his work as a missionary, Farrell is from an
established Mormon family, as he shares with Lozano, “My father told me he’d
rather I come home in a casket than come home dishonored.” This staunch
edict brings tragic consequences and it is becomes clear that just as the
gang member, Carl, and the itinerant homeless Pentecostal preacher played
with a worn dignity by African-American playwright and actor, Jo’Sei, are in
need of salvation, so too is Elder Farrell.
There is a challenge implicit in the film as Dutcher pairs the Book of
Mormon with the Bible in one scene and has Elder Lozano gently chide Elder
Farrell in another with the question of what he would rather do, “Break the
rules or keep the commandments?” As the church is marking the 200th
anniversary of the birth of its founder Joseph Smith, Dutcher seems to point
inside as well
as outside the church to remind us of the quality we all share. Whether
Buddhist, Hindi, Holyroller, or Skeptic, we are all in need of the saving
grace of humanity, community, love.
Produced by Utah Jazz owner Larry Miller, STATES OF GRACE, at times reflects
its modest budget of $1.5 million. With that said, there are some hugely
cinematic moments which also reflect Dutcher’s goal to bring the stirring
and sometimes shocking visual precepts of mainstream cinema to Mormon
filmmaking. Carl’s welcome into the church is paired with a death scene that
is strongly influenced by Francis Ford Coppola. The interaction and dialogue
between gang members is pure Singleton. The message and the sincerity is all
Dutcher, reminding Mormon and non-Mormon, that it is human frailty, human
fault, that makes grace not only necessary but possible.
Stirring and inspirational.