The Mission, a documentary premiering at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, represents the first time the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (most commonly referred to as the LDS or Mormon Church) has given a non-LDS film crew access to missionaries throughout the entirety of their mission. The church’s mission program sends tens of thousands of teenagers and young adults around the world to proselytize and convert new members for two years. The Mission follows four of these missionaries sent to Finland.
While the level of access might be unprecedented, that might not mean much. Most of what we learn about LDS missions and missionaries is not particularly revelatory for anyone familiar with the religion. Those who are not familiar might find the mission experience novel or discomfiting. LDS church members will likely find a number of scenes in the documentary to be edifying and faith-affirming (or nostalgic if they, too, served a mission). That said, the separate messages taken by each of these groups might be better delivered if sought elsewhere.
The lens of the documentary most closely aligns with the perspective of those not familiar with the intricacies of the faith and its culture. The impetus of the documentary, as described by director Tania Anderson, began with a “chance encounter” with two missionaries on a cold night in Finland in 2016. Anderson says, “I happened to pass two young men speaking English. I immediately recognized their suits and aimed to press on before they saw me,” which is how many Finns in the documentary reacted to seeing missionaries proselytizing on the street. Instead, Anderson found herself eavesdropping on their conversation about “temptation being everywhere.” She says, “For the first time, I could see beyond the attire that so officiously differentiate them from other teens, and clearly demarcates them as representatives of their church. And in that moment, I caught a glance at two unique 18-year-olds with high hopes, and deep fears, trying to keep out the cold and mundanity of everyday life.”
The Sundance documentary inspired by the encounter keeps that focus—presenting the experiences of teenagers, who believe they are called by god to serve far from home, without commentary. The result is something of a coming-of-age story about the four missionaries at the core of the documentary: Elder Tyler Davis, Sister McKenna Field, Elder Kaii Pauole and Sister Megan Bills. On their own for the first time in their lives, in a foreign country, with a tenuous grasp on the language, a divine mandate, and expectations far from reality, we see all four of them forced to develop and learn more about themselves and become more entrenched in their faith.
As they say goodbye to their families and as they meet their first companions in the field, the missionaries’ inexperience, naivete and unrealistic expectations are on full display, which might inspire sympathetic anxiety in a mature audience. Elder Tyler Davis has never ironed his own dress shirts before. Sister Field takes literally the church leaders’ promise of spiritual blessings for going on mission. She believes those blessings will inspire her family members to return to practicing the LDS faith, which they have disavowed. Sister Bills doesn’t know how she’s going to live for two years without rocking out in the car with her sister to their favorite music (the church requires missionaries avoid entertainment or other activities common to this age-group as long as they are on their missions, so they can focus entirely on the work of serving and of teaching others the LDS gospel.) For his reason for going on a mission, Elder Kaii Pauole cites the church edict that “every able young man should serve a mission,” attributing it to scripture, although he isn’t sure which scripture it’s from. That could be because it’s actually taken from talks by former LDS church presidents. LDS President Thomas S. Monson said, “Every worthy, able young man should prepare to serve a mission. Missionary service is a priesthood duty—an obligation the Lord expects of us who have been given so very much. Young men, I admonish you to prepare for service as a missionary.” (Young women are not required by the faith to go on a mission but can choose to do so regardless.)
The documentary succeeds in showing the naïve, vulnerable and, at times, scared teenager behind the tell-tale LDS missionary name tag. These are just kids, after all, and they arrive in Finland out of their depth with only their faith at the end of the day. Perhaps inadvertently, the documentary also exposes an issue with which the church’s new messaging and guidelines are at odds with its deeply rooted culture.
Elder Davis reveals to one of his companions his mental illness. He explains that his depression and anxiety and “bipolarity” have become more and more of a struggle to manage the longer he stays on his mission. He expresses particular anxiety around “transfer calls,” when a missionary must move to a new area and work with a new companion every few months or so. He says he had sessions with a “mission therapist,” which appears to be the same counseling offered to church members by LDS Family Services (a faith-based counseling arm of the church which discloses notes on the patient to their church leaders). Still, Davis’s health continues to deteriorate until he suffers some kind of seizure. With seven months left to serve, Davis’s mission president sends him home early.
While the church has tried to soften their messaging around missionaries who don’t complete their mission, Elder Davis’s reaction to the news shows that the messaging from the church’s culture and membership has some catching up to do. “I would rather stay here for another seven months and die serving the people of Finland than go home early and live another 60 years,” he tells his companion. His mission president assures Davis that God wants him to be healthy and whole and does not love him any less, but that message must combat a lifetime of pressure and expectation from church and family to complete a full-time mission. Months later, when we see Elder Davis at the homecoming events of his fellow missionaries, he still appears despondent. “You’re really quiet now,” Pauole tells Davis.
Because the documentarians do not offer commentary on the experiences of the missionaries, the audience is left to ponder themselves a question posed by a Finnish high school student to Elder Pauole: “Do you feel like your life as a teenager is being limited?”
The Mission premiered the fifth day of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival and, as of publication, has not been acquired for distribution.
ABOUT THE MISSION DIRECTOR TANIA ANDERSON
Director and Writer Tania Anderson is a British, American and Swiss emerging filmmaker, based in Helsinki, Finland. She has also worked as a writer and journalist with over 10 years of experience of working in the media, most recently as a writer for National Geographic, where she discovered her passion for telling ordinary people’s extraordinary stories. A conversation she accidentally overheard between two young missionaries in dark, wintery Finland sparked the idea for The Mission, which is also her first feature-length documentary film.
Read all of Salt Lake magazine’s 2022 Sundance reviews.