Friday, July 17, 2009

Mormonness and Other Phenomena in the DVD release of Forever Strong

The Film

Ryan Little's Forever Strong has been compared to other popular sports films such as Remember the Titans and Rudy in ways both flattering and dismissive: flattering inasmuch as the film tells an inspirational story in a way that resonates with a wide variety of audiences, dismissive because it does so in a fairly formulaic manner – the formula in question being established and entrenched by movies such as these.

Both points are valid. Comparing Little's effort to the ostensibly larger, more widely known productions is more than an insecure attempt to turn a broadly targeted LDS film into the movement's flagship (see how Hollywood that was! Did you notice Sean Astin? Aren't Mormons great filmmakers?) or to ride the more famous films' coattails to financial or social success. Forever Strong really does have as good and universal a message as Titans even if it's not as emotionally charged as that film's racial elements can sometimes make it, and the two demonstrate many other similarities. And while Sean Faris' character Rick Penning doesn't share Rudy's overlooked underdog status, he does have certain obstacles to overcome before he can really belong on a team that is as famous in high school rugby as Notre Dame Football is in its sphere. All three films, and many others like them, utilize the medium of sports to teach lessons and tell stories that should transcend the realm of athletics and the ages of the players.

True it is also that the film is predictable. No one is surprised when the troubled Penning lands in a correctional facility, when he reluctantly agrees to join the Highland team, when the team suffers from his influence, when a teammate helps him see past himself, when tragedy involving that same teammate strikes, when the coach demonstrates both firmness and compassion in teaching life lessons, when the transformed Penning is confronted by his old life, when that life conspires against him, when he and his father share an emotional moment or two of forgiveness, or when (in slow motion and presumably against the odds) Penning himself scores the final, desperate, last-second winning goal. The average American moviegoer could probably give a good general outline of the film without ever having seen it.

But neither of those things (the similarity or the predictability) matter because neither of them say anything about the value of the film. The latter argument begs the question, what is wrong with following a formula in telling a story, particularly if such a formula helps an audience to identify its place within the story? Does knowing the end from the beginning make the journey meaningless? Why would we ever watch a film more than once if this were the case? The “that's been done before” philosophy would prevent the telling of a great many important stories if it were allowed to. This is not to deny the importance of new perspectives and innovative approaches, but rather to assert that tradition can provide as fertile a storytelling matrix as does frontier.

Are Remember the Titans or Rudy either worse or better because Forever Strong is like them? It could be argued that Little's film lacks originality, but this is simply a function of coming after so many others. Even if the genre was picked for the commercial potential demonstrated by movies like Titans and the “hook” was that hey, this is a rugby film, we've never seen that before, does this imply that the new offering can't be better than the old? I personally don't think Forever Strong is the “better” of the films I've mentioned, but the point is that it could be – even if every page of its playbook was taken from something previously done. It could still be better because the story, as real life Highland Rugby head coach Larry Gelwix says, is true.

The story has some important differences from the films mentioned above, however. Unlike Titans, the plot of which revolves around the coaching staff and is narrated by a child, focusing on the game of football as a microcosm of racial relations, Forever Strong focuses on a single player's personal life, telling the story from his perspective and somewhat downplaying the importance of Rugby in the transformational process. Unlike Rudy, in Forever Strong, the change in the team (coach included) is minimal – at least in terms of screen time. It's Penning converting to the Highland way, not Irish being made flexible by the tenacity of a small zealot.

This is one way in which Forever Strong, though not uniquely Mormon, fits comfortably into the developing tradition of Mormon film: it is essentially a personal conversion story, including themes of forgiveness and redemption. Penning is redeemed as he accepts the higher lifestyle of the Highland philosophy, from which his father has also, unbeknownst to the son, fallen away. It's interesting that Penning Sr.'s life of bitterness stems from the belief that when he was on Gelwix's team, he was played in the wrong position. This is exactly the same hurdle that Penning Jr. has to overcome in his very first game for Highland, when he learns that he is being placed somewhere other than his traditional goal-scoring post. His wounded pride at not being the star impacts the entire team and they lose the game through lack of effort,an unacceptable outcome to Gelwix.

Penning Jr. does not repeat his father's mistakes, however, and his personal redemption, which holds true even when he is framed by a former friend and jailed falsely, leads to the same change of heart in his father. Their spiritual atonement is made complete by the forgiveness the former extends to the latter as their teams (Penning Sr. coaches his son's former team) are about to face each other for the championship.

None of this happens, however, before Penning Jr. gives a perfect illustration of the LDS understanding of repentance. First he realizes the error of his ways, second he physically abandons his bad behavior (kicks a ball in which he's been hiding his drugs over the correctional facility fence), and third, he confesses his sins to the appropriate authority – in this case coach Gelwix. His probationary period is set (he can't play in the next game), but he is also promised future blessings (he is made co captain of the team). Ironically, Penning's repentance leads to his early release from his now irrelevant correctional sentence, which takes him from the Highland team and thrusts him back into the midst of the very environment he has just learned to forsake. His refusal to return to that lifestyle leads to the framing mentioned above. In the final game, he completes his repentance by asking forgiveness of those he has offended (his father).

Redemption also comes to coach Gelwix after his philosophy is challenged by Penning Jr.'s rebellion. At one point, the coach poses the thought to his wife that if he can't help Penning, it may be time for him to quit coaching. Clearly, the outcome indicates that Gelwix's usefulness as an instrument of change is far from expired.

Finally, “Q,” Highland's other co captain is brought to redemption by the converted Penning Jr.'s example when he admits first to Penning, and then to Gelwix that he has been cheating in school, in violation of the team's honor code.

One of the staple messages of the film is the importance of forgetting oneself in the quest for team victory. The definition of “team” can be variable. Gelwix's philosophy states that while being honestly beaten is undesirable, it is acceptable so long as the best effort is given. Accordingly, as mentioned, a key requirement is that players accept and magnify their positions on the team. Penning learns to accept that his role is not to score, but to support the team in other ways. This lesson, which embodies the transformation his attitude has undergone, is contradicted in the final seconds of the championship game when the already injured Penning fends off and evades repeated vicious attempts to disable him and scores the winning goal. That this is expected in a film of this nature has already been observed, but it might seem more consistent in this case to have Penning provide a critical assist to the goal, or to play a very minor part in the winning play. For him to rejoice in the desired outcome when it was brought about by the team's unity rather than his direct actions would reinforce the message rather than undermining it. The pacing, framing, and length of the critical shots are such that Penning's big play seems to be a one-man drive without regard for or awareness of teammates who may be in better scoring position.

From a certain perspective, however, the point may be moot. Gelwix instructs all his players that “it doesn't matter who scores. It only matters that we score.” If Penning has truly become converted to this teaching, then scoring any goal – even the winning goal of the championship game – holds no personal glory for him above what is shared by the team as a whole. That it was him who scored wouldn't matter. If this is the case, the scene in question has no inconsistency. My limited understanding of rugby prevents me from saying whether the goal represents Penning usurping the role of a teammate or simply being in the right place at the right time.

What I can say is that this scene feels inconsistent because it narrow the film's focus back to the game level – if Penning can only score, he will win the game. The transcendent lessons have been forgotten in a momentary push to make the play. While this deviation bothered me, it doesn't detract from the film's overall consistency enough to be a serious flaw.


Coach Gelwix is an admirable man, that much is clear from the brief exposure I've had to him both in person and via this film. Although he isn't the crux of the story in Forever Strong, he is the source of the influence that transforms Penning's life. The DVD tries to capture that influence in a special feature entitled Life Lessons with Coach Larry Gelwix or something like that. The feature is interesting for several reasons. From one perspective, the interview Gelwix gives demonstrates how extensively his personal philosophy is written into the film's script and how ably Gary Cole capture's the man's character in his performance. Many lines and moments that I initially thought were dreamed up by the studio turn out to actually be common sayings and real depictions of this dynamic leader, which helps to give the film its credibility.

But most of that credibility comes from the fact that the story is true, as Gelwix unreservedly declares it to be. Hold on a minute. Just before that he said that the events in the film were composited from experiences of more than thirty years of coaching, and that they didn't happen all in one season. Then how can the story be true? Gelwix explains that, too. He says that the truth of a story – or any statement – has nearly nothing to do with the actual words (or other direct meaning carriers like film images) used. Instead, the story operates on true principles, the coach claims, which is why it can, in spite of being factually inaccurate, be true. This is why Christ's teaching in parables doesn't turn him into a liar. It may be that no nobleman going into a far country ever had the same experience with his stewards that the man in the parable of the talents had, but that hardly makes the parable false. So with any story.

To greater and lesser extents, the elements of a DVD share a symbiotic relationship. The special features, the previews or advertisements, the menu design, the navigation can influence the viewer's experience, and therefore interpretation of the film. Unlike theater viewing, DVDs allow the user to control the pace, timing, and content of the experience, I hope you'll forgive my speaking about my particular experience with this DVD.

I'm a believer that a work of art should be taken on its own terms and does not need the context of the artist's biography, previous works, etc. to be understood. Those things can certainly impact how art is viewed, but they do so by making the work in question a part of a larger story – no longer a story unto itself. This means that the emotions, impressions, and interpretations the audience associates with the work are not actually responses to the art, but to framework in which it is placed. It's the difference between beholding a breathtaking vista from a high mountaintop and thumbing through the photo album of all the family vacations, including that one.

The photo album effect is what DVD special features often try to do to a film. In addition to experiencing the art, you can learn about the “making of” and get to know the cast, crew, and other individuals outside of the context of their roles as artists or contributors. The Life Lessons section of the Forever Strong DVD introduces the viewer to the real Larry Gelwix, which has two distinct effects. First, it makes an already somewhat preachy sports-as-life film (a genre in which it can be hard to avoid preachyness) even more didactic. Second, it grounds the film's theatrical elements in reality. Not often do we get to hear exactly which events in a “based on actual events” film are actual. It sort of does what the ending of Tim Burton's Big Fish does for the protagonist's wild life story – it lets us see the humanity behind the mythology.

Regarding the first effect, I should mention that Forever Strong is not preachy in the sense that it shoves the philosophy it advocates down the viewer's throat, only in the sense that it takes a distinct stand on the issues it handles. The title of the Life Lessons feature lets the viewer know what to expect, so there's no reason to be surprised that it feels like a young adult fireside.

The presence of this feature on the disc may constitute a sideways attempt by Little (or someone else involved in the production) to satisfy the LDS impulse to use media and art as a missionary tool. You can enjoy the movie without feeling like you're in Sunday School, but if you would like to know more about the teachings of Larry Gelwix... The opportunity is there, and religion finally comes into it when, in one of the final segments of this feature, Gelwix characterizes his coaching methodology by saying “you can't do the Lord's work in the devil's way.”

There is no LDS-specific proselytizing that I observed, by the way.

But as far as I'm concerned, this may be a perfectly good way for LDS filmmakers to get their stronger gospel ideals into their productions. Life Lessons is distinct among the features on the disc because it's the only one that doesn't feel like it came from a fan site. It carries a sober, inspirational tone in that it openly preaches what the film attempts to represent in application.

The other features – viral videos, trailers, and the obligatory outtakes and bloopers are standard DVD fare, and that's okay.

One thing that felt missing from this DVD: previews. I'm often annoyed by them, particularly as they include more pitches for non-film products, but I confess that I was hoping for a look at the director's next project, some upcoming offerings from Candlelight, or something. Instead the disc firstplays the main menu and there is no option I could see for anything else. Disappointing to my cultural Mormonness, not very Hollywood-like (in spite of repeated claims that this was a major Hollywood release), but not a very serious flaw, if it was one at all.