Review – Return With Honor: A Missionary Homecoming
By Ken K. Gourdin
Dutcher may have set the standard, but this contribution to Mormon cinema and to Mormon missionary sagas isn’t without its redeeming qualities.
I recently re-watched another drama about Mormon missionary life (this one dealing with its aftermath), the movie Return With Honor: A Missionary Homecoming, whose protagonist (Rowe McDonald, played by Javen Tanner) attempts to navigate his readjustment to “civilian” life while simultaneously dealing with a complicated family life. Whatever critics in print media and among moviegoers may have thought of the movie, I’m not alone in my affection for it: according to IMDB.com, it won the Best Actor award (Javen Tanner) and the Founder’s Award for Best Feature Film (Michael Amundson) at the 2007 New York Independent Film and Video Festival, as well as the Gold Award at 2007 Worldfest Houston.
It has its weaknesses. In some spots, it makes certain points with ham-fisted dialogue when such a heavy touch is neither necessary nor in keeping with the subtleties employed in the rest of the movie. It also falls prey to certain Mormon stereotypes, such as the girlfriend who faithfully waits the whole two years for her missionary (Alley Benson, played by Joey Jalalian – to her credit, however, she makes every guy wish he were Rowe McDonald).
The fact that Rowe and Alley pick up right where they left off after Rowe has just spent two years in a situation where coming within a fifty-foot radius of a member of the opposite sex without direct, explicit, prior written permission from the mission president (which has, in turn, been duly notarized by an angel) is forbidden strains credulity, in my book, but what do I know? I’ve been home from my mission nearly a quarter-century, and women still haven’t gotten the memo: it’s as though they’re not only content, but downright bound and determined to ignore me. (Maybe I’m simply jealous of Rowe; after all, Alley isn’t bad looking – to say the least!)
The viewer wants to like the main character. This desire to like the protagonist is particularly strong, given the fact that an encounter with the Divine following a serious traffic accident shortly before Elder McDonald returns home from his mission in Las Vegas leaves the viewer with the impression that his time remaining in mortality is limited. To be honest, however, my desire to like Elder (Emeritus!) McDonald notwithstanding, I found myself telling him, vociferously and at regular intervals, to “Quit being such a self-righteous, judgmental little prick!” (Please pardon my French; I also found myself hoping that any non-Mormon who might see the film wouldn’t be left with the misconception that all [or most] Mormons are so “holier-than-thou.”)
One of the movie’s strengths, however, is the presence of genuine conflict which it does not attempt to sugarcoat, and Rowe’s failure to “get it” – to recognize what’s most important and what he has been missing in his approach to his relationships with others (especially his mother) – is one of the main sources of that conflict. In an interesting twist, Rowe’s rebellious, non-church-going, missionary-service-spurning, punk-rocker, bald, tattooed best friend, Corbin (played by Raymond Zeiters) is the one who holds up the mirror that finally enables Rowe to see the role he has been playing in fomenting that conflict.
The urge to soft-peddle conflict is a weakness to which the creators of various Mormon-themed books, movies, and other media too often fall prey. Mormons experience the same hardships – conflict with family, friends, and others, financial reversals, job losses, health challenges, sadness and sorrow, and so on – that everyone else does. The point of the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ is not to spare us of any of that: in Mormon parlance, “It must needs be, that there must needs be opposition in all things” (see 2 Nephi 2:11 in The Book of Mormon). Rather, the Gospel aims to give us the tools to better deal with these things, since they are the common lot of humanity.
Notwithstanding the short time McDonald has been home, Alley wastes no time trying to turn his attention to the next step in the stereotypical storybook progression of Mormon life – marriage. Alley’s focus on the future, however, is complicated by the conflict created by the fact that Rowe, conversely, believes that planning for a future he will never see is pointless, while his obsessive goal orientation (newly directed toward converting his non-Mormon mother, Trish, played by Tayva Patch) in the brief time he believes he has left strains the already-challenging relationship he has with her, as well.
Rowe’s laser-focus on goals is illustrated by a conversation he has with his mission president shortly before he returns home. Asked what he thought the secret to his success as a missionary is, Elder McDonald doesn’t mention his love for the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ (or his love for Jesus Christ, himself, for that matter), or his love for the people he has been teaching. Rather, he says, the secret to his success was minimizing the valuable time he had as a missionary attempting to teach someone who isn’t ready to accept the message. Alas, perhaps his next intended convert is the least ready to do that of all.