Duck Beach is a documentary about an annual Memorial Day gathering in North Carolina where single young Mormons party and look for the person they’ll marry for life. If you’re like me, you have a love of learning about different walks of life and things about which you were ignorant. I was so happy that someone strongly suggested I watch this film, as I had a great time watching it…
Let’s get this out of the way now: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is viewed by many outsiders as a cult. There are all those stories about polygamy – which is inaccurate. Polygamy was abandoned in 1890, and only applies to some fundamentalist groups that split off from the LDS. It’s also known that this Church had a policy against accepting black members as priests, but this practice was abandoned in 1978, the 126th year of Mormonism’s existence.
To some extent, then, a lot of misconceptions about the LDS are based on the Mormon practice of not allowing non-members to enter their temples. It’s also based on the idea that this Christian offshoot was founded recently – in the US in 1852 – and that it involves Jesus appearing in the New World millenia ago, leaving behind golden books that only the founder of Mormonism, John Smith, could translate. Does it sound crazy? Yes. Do most religious beliefs sound at least a little crazy? Also yes.
With that out of the way, I can tell you that Duck Beach is a lot of fun. How could I have a bad time? My first (and, so far, only) kegstand was over 40 seconds long. DB‘s opening montage is of a Mormon guy and gal as they chug Mountain Dew and react like it’s a hardcore moment. I was laughing my ass off, only moments in.
Everything is well-shot here. Interviews with people as they lounge and play at the beach, talking about the people around them, or while they drive down to North Carolina, or hearing from the kids’ homes with their family and friends. The quality of the camerawork never seems cheap, even at some nighttime house party that’s every bit as busy as an MTV affair – it just lacks bleeped-out cursing and blurred-out nudity.
As for the subject matter – kind of the Mormon equivalent of Spring Break + a Southern debutante ball – it’s both a strength and a weakness. For people who know nothing about the Church of Latter Day Saints, it’s kind of creepy to hear all this talk about finding your eternal life partner. It supports, a bit, one of my philosophical wonderings about religion – whether “be fruitful and multiply” is a social construct intended to make people either (a) outnumber the people different from them or (b) gain enough members to avoid being marginalized and ignored. While all this “let’s make babies” talk seems off-putting, the truth is that it’s a common worry among people who are Jewish, Lutheran, Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist. In short: if you’re wary of Mormons, it’s odd; if you’re not, you see Mormons having the same concerns and struggles as everyone else.
This documentary follows a large group of people – over a thousand 20-to-30-something Mormons are on display. They surf, talk, party, flirt, and gossip amongst themselves. Smartly, the four directors here (Hadleigh Arnst, Stephen Frandsen, Laura Naylor, Hillary Mammen) focused on 10 or so particular people. Five or six were attractive young men and women who were looking to find their eternal mates. The rest were people that fall outside the typical LDS pattern: once married but now divorced; over 30, and thus both “too old” and too experienced to fit in or sell themselves easily; and one guy who is a passionate teacher in Brooklyn, and has had a very hard time finding someone to truly connect with.
Duck Beach does a great job of humanizing and putting a real face onto Mormons. One woman states that with all the restrictions of her faith, she had to choose one sin she would let herself do – and that’s having a potty-mouth. Other folks explain that Mormons are allowed to kiss, but not to go for second or third base, nor to make out for “too long.” Most of them talk about the real pressure from their family, or the perceived pressure from peers, to find someone. And many of the women complain that the men are just out to find the best-looking female out there. Rather than isolate the LDS community, the themes presented here are universal, even when they seem ridiculous or hysterical to an outsider.
Does Duck Beach have any failings? Well, it runs 80 minutes long, even with credits. I loved many aspects of this picture, especially the cartoon-style segments that explain what the Mormon belief boils down to – spirits who were put on Earth to do good and have children after marriage and hope to enter Paradise. However, I guess it could have shown more of the religion – but it might have been at the expense of straying from its topic. If there’s one big problem, then, it’s that more time should have been devoted to the biggest outsiders – the Mormons in their mid/late 30’s, or the one who has a child and got divorced, or (even more so) the one black Mormon who we see for a second at the start and are never shown again. All these people deserve extra attention as the presumed outcasts of the group; instead, DB focused on one guy who’s balding and steadfast in sticking to his guns. Yet these are relatively minor complaints, and it’s a good sign that I left this pic wanting more.
No matter what you think, the Latter Day Saints – like so many other religious groups – instructs its followers to be good people to everyone, not just fellow-members. Being honest, I was a little wary of the first Mormon I met, a law school classmate – but the guy was always friendly and gave every sign of trying to live a good life. Like my own Catholic upbringing (I’m spiritual/a-religious now), he was required to do service – to aid other people for a time – and so I was really pleased to see that he knew Korean, as he had chosen to help that particular group.
In a sense, the real shame is that Mormons are largely misunderstood, with their main pop-culture treatment being a hyperbolic HBO show, Big Love, about a man with many wives (who thus isn’t LDS). The only other popular treatment Mormons have received is through Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the South Park creators. They made a hit Broadway musical called The Book of Mormon; I haven’t seen it yet (the ticket prices are insane), so I can’t comment. However, I did love the episode of South Park called “All About Mormons” – that ep simultaneously derides the religion’s founding (the chorus for those scenes is “dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb!”), and yet still highlights that its followers are good people who don’t care that their friends aren’t members of the LDS, too.
Stone and Parker also created the hysterical cult comedy, Orgazmo, but I will have to talk about that fine film another day, on my own blog. I myself both laughed at and was worried by the idea that people who would not drink alcohol or smoke were still allowed by their religion to hold public fight clubs. I will just say that my classmate gave every appearance of being kind, not especially judgmental, and as full of human faults and strengths as anyone else.
FilmBuff has made Duck Beach available through iTunes, Amazon, Vudu, Playstation, Xbox,CinemaNow, YouTube. I strongly recommend DB, as it’s a good documentary about an interesting subject; Beach is a well-made movie, and it’s very entertaining. Check it out now.