“My name is R.J. Smith — or ‘Elder Smith’ now,” says the lead character at the beginning of The Falls, the latest release from Breaking Glass Pictures. “I’m a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints — or you can use the acronym LDS if you wish.”
He goes on to tell us that he’s 20 years old and that in two days, he will be leaving on his mission.
“We are told at a young age that it is our duty as men to serve God through two years of missionary service. Mormons are told, if you serve a mission faithfully and well, you will be a better husband, father, student, and a better worker in your chosen vocation,” he says. So begins this intriguing new romantic drama written and directed by Jon Garcia.
Garcia grew up in Austin, Texas, and moved to Portland, Ore., in 2005 with the intention of becoming, in his words, “a traveling troubadour.” He even released two music CDs before he discovered filmmaking and surrendered to its call.
He went to film school, which led to his first feature, King of Hearts.
But it was while working with a local after-school program serving LGBT youth that, he says, “I was inspired by the people I was meeting and I wanted to write this story about a young man who was coming out to his family and friends in this small town.”
Garcia grew up Catholic, and he concedes that he didn’t know that much about LDS doctrine. Yet, he notes, “I’d always been interested in studying religions and did a lot of research — I even went to an LDS temple where I met with these two missionaries, and that’s what I think really helped to give it all more authenticity.”
As the plot unfolds, R.J. is sent off on his mission, where he meets his companion in this Mormon rite of passage, Chris (or Elder Merrill), who is so conservative that he crosses out all the off-color language in the copy of The Catcher in the Rye that he’s reading. Right away, the two find one another equally sincere in their convictions and hit it off quite well.
Eventually, though, R.J. notices Chris becoming distracted and easily irritable, which causes him to slack off in their assignments. R.J. urges Chris to open up to him, and together the two ultimately confront the truth: Chris is gay, and he has developed strong feelings for R.J. This, in turn, stirs and strengthens R.J. to at last recognize that long-denied part of himself, as well: He, too, is a homosexual and he has equally strong feelings for Chris.
What follows is not always easy to watch, but anyone who has a familiarity with the Mormon church will see that Garcia has done his research. For instance, in exercising some degree of restraint during the production’s more intimate scenes, he ironically adds a greater credibility to them.
Once the men’s secrets are found out, R.J. realizes that his affections for Chris are not a sin, which leads him to make the bittersweet choice of leaving the spiritual institution that he still loves.
“It was really important to me to that the two still very much wanted to be part of the LDS church — and that they still, of course, believed in God. It’s just that there just wasn’t a place for them,” the director says.
Here Garcia is addressing those often-unrepresented individuals who, despite all that they may have been put through, are at heart non-aggressive toward their devout upbringings. In this way, perhaps more than any other, The Falls stands apart from other recent titles involving similar subject matter.
“My real aim was to educate and enlighten — not accuse,” Garcia says.
In fact, through his involvement with the project, Garcia became acquainted with Affirmation, the national organization of gay and lesbian Mormons. Many of the group’s members, even if they are officially excommunicated for their sexual orientation, still identify to some extent with many of the Mormons’ teachings.
What’s more, a special screening for Affirmation’s Portland chapter was among the first showings for the completed picture.
“It seems like there were a lot of people there who were pretty moved, and it was something they could identify with,” Garcia said.
He noted that quite a few of the organization’s members — those who could have been his harshest critics — have instead been among the movie’s staunchest supporters.
As R.J., Nick Ferrucci paints a plausible portrait of a young Mormon “everyman“— one who is content with his life overall and genuinely eager to serve his church and community doing what he’s been taught, for as long as he can remember, is the right thing.
During the course of his narration, R.J. details how he begins every morning and concludes every night in prayer. “Mormon faith truly is a benefactor of wholesomeness,” he says.
Ferrucci was featured in Garcia’s first movie, and Garcia turned to him for this role, knowing that he needed someone who could create instant empathy. “I had Nick in mind the whole time,” Garcia said. “He has a way of walking into a room and all the energy goes straight to him.”
As Chris, Benjamin Farmer also does a laudable and believable job. “With Ben, I felt he looks like what I think a Mormon young man is,” the filmmaker says with a grin.
Garcia explains his hope for The Falls: “I wanted to tell a story about these two boys and I wanted to raise important questions. This can both teach and inspire.”
One of the most powerful moments in the film is when R.J. is sitting in his bishop’s office, where he confesses bluntly — without sorrow or apology – “I am a gay man. I’m not the first one who’s gone on a mission. I’m not going to be the last!”
Garcia says, “People fall in love with people, and we’re all the same! I want LDS members to have sympathy and to know that there can be — and is — a place for the LGBT community within their membership. They just have to find a place for them.”
The Falls is now available on DVD. For more information or to order, go to www.breakingglasspictures.com. To learn more about Affirmation, including where to find a local chapter, go to www.affirmation.org.