Credit: Antti Savolainen/Courtesy of Sundance Institute
by Ryan Swen Film

The Mission — Tania Anderson

January 28, 2022

Despite its generic-seeming title, Tania Anderson’s directorial debut The Mission focuses on a very specific form of religious work: the two-year missions to Finland, undertaken by American Mormon teens as part of the customs of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Anderson herself is based in Helsinki, though she identifies with multiple nationalities including American, but like many aspects of the film at large, there is a frustrating vagueness in the specificity of this choice. Aside from the difficulties that the missionaries have with Finnish, the general coldness that remains a consistent visual marker throughout, and the glancing interactions between the subjects, there is little that distinguishes the otherwise fairly universal difficulties and doubts at play here.

One thing that is obvious, though, is the choice of Mormon missionaries, whose ubiquitous nametags and solicitations worldwide have been, admittedly, something of an annoyance to outsiders. There is an unmistakable stigma that the film seeks to at least partially unpack, and one of its main strategies that ultimately blunts its most interesting aspects is to toggle between four main subjects: Elder Pauloe, Elder Davis, Sister Field, and Sister Bills, all of whom appear to be from somewhere in or around Utah, and are deployed from the Provo Missionary Training Center from 2019 to 2021. The pandemic isn’t mentioned onscreen but masks do appear towards the end of the film.

This equal gender divide is an element that goes unexplored: the men are expected to serve in a way that the women are still not, and yet the same infrastructure, including check-ins with the church and rotating companions more familiar with the country and the language, appears to be in place for them as well. There are maybe two scenes of discussion of actual doctrine, though Anderson also appears to frontload most of the more notable snubs, letting seemingly more than half of the film pass by before allowing her subjects the dignity of a positive interaction.

Besides that, however, The Mission seems stuck in presenting the most conventional version of itself, even as interesting insights appear at the edges. No talking heads are present, but there is copious voiceover duly noting the difficulty and uncertainty of the endeavor, especially as it involves young people separated from their families for a considerable amount of time. Perhaps unexpectedly, Elder Davis begins suffering from depression that becomes so severe that he is required by the church to return home against his wishes. Yet even his departure segues into a montage of joy and success among his fellow missionaries.

Though such montages are blessedly rare, The Mission nonetheless feels too vague, too prone to render its subjects’ respective personalities under a simple and blandly inspirational vein. The ending in particular, which sees all four missionaries as having matured and bolstered in their faith and commitment, jettisons much of the ambivalence that had been latently present beforehand. Aside from showing the rejections and (off-screen) a few baptisms, the film spends little time noting the specific cities, the passage of time, the actual practice of missionary work; and without any deeper insight, The Mission feels like the work of an institution, attentive only to the surfaces of a particular way of life.

Published as part of Sundance Film Festival 2022 — Dispatch 3.