Credit: First-Names Films
Before We Vanish by Steven Warner Film

YouthMin | Jeff Ryan & Arielle Cimino

April 30, 2021

Following in the vein of prolific mockumentarian Christopher Guest, YouthMin manages to poke fun at an easily laughable topic without grabbing only the low-hanging fruit.

Micro-budget mockumentary YouthMin takes on, appropriately enough, youth ministries, those teen-targeted groups found in churches and religious organizations across America that hope to instill faith within today’s impressionable youngsters. Frankly, it’s hard to believe that such potentially fertile comedic ground hasn’t been mined before, although perhaps outright mocking religious factions limits audience potential in a nation that is roughly two-thirds Christian-identifying, nearly half of whom are of the evangelical variety. And let’s be real — if anyone is unable or unwilling to take a joke, it’s the faith-minded moviegoers who turned such deplorable fare as God’s Not Dead into a box office behemoth.

What proves most surprising about YouthMin, then, is that it stealthily avoids the low-hanging fruit that tends to afflict both this specific genre and the subject matter itself, even as the opening scenes hint at something rancid. Youth Pastor David Bauer (co-director Jeff Ryan) is a thirty-something man-child with a look fixed somewhere in the late-’90s skater boi era, but goofier: he boasts a pathetic soul-patch and overgrown, greasy hair parted down the middle, while a backward baseball cap and a wardrobe of jeans and comical religious t-shirts signal his particular brand of cool. His group of teen charges is small, and his interactions reek of someone desperately clinging to their youth in an effort to stay hip. Pastor Dave’s world gets thrown for a loop, though, when he is assigned a new co-leader, the unmarried and pregnant Rachel (Tori Hines). She arrives just in time for the group’s annual trip to Bible camp, where they will compete for the award of Best Youth Group, a title that has so far eluded Pastor Dave’s grasp.

It’s easy to imagine such material taking the most obvious route and going south quickly, but Ryan and co-director Arielle Cimino, along with screenwriter Christopher O’Connell, have wisely taken a page from the book of Christopher Guest and play the material mostly straight, understanding that the humor and absurdity arise not out of caricature, but from simply presenting the reality of these individuals, in their truest, oddest form. But that actually makes the film sound more mean-spirited than it is, as YouthMin holds genuine affection for its motley crew of misfits and never once uses faith as a cheap punchline. In the ultimate irony, the film is probably one of the more nuanced portrayals of Western religion to grace screens in ages. It’s only when the filmmakers give in to the occasional sitcom shenanigans, such as a Three’s Company-type misunderstanding involving the sexuality of one of the teens, that the movie loses its footing. One also wishes that the half-dozen campers presented here — all comically played by actors and actresses in their late-20s — were fleshed out a bit more, but there is no denying that they nevertheless make for an appealing, chemistry-rich crew. Still, while YouthMin isn’t going to go down in history as the Best in Show of religious mockumentaries, it’s ultimately a sincere and sweet film that elicits far more effortless smiles than one might expect.

Published as part of Before We Vanish | April 2021.