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Grade: B-Latter Days (2003)

Director: C. Jay Cox

Stars: Steve Sandvoss, Wes Ramsey

Release Company: TLA Releasing

MPAA Rating: NR

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Cox: Latter Days

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Tree Branches in Front of Salt Lake City Mormon Temple, Salt Lake City, Utah, USA
Tree Branches in Front of Salt Lake City Mormon Temple, Salt Lake City, Utah, USA Framed Photographic Print
Saks, Stephen
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Audience winner at gay and lesbian film festivals in L.A. and Philadelphia, Latter Days feels very much like standard fare often seen at these festivals—with themes of a closeted gay man coming to terms with his sexuality after falling in love. The unlikely coupling this time pairs a flamboyant hedonistic hunk (Wesley A. Ramsey as Christian) with a reserved Mormon missionary (Steve Sandvoss as Aaron), whose rules dictate that he must always be accompanied by his missionary partner and whose church would instantly excommunicate him for a single homosexual act.

Had the film chosen to focus on the conflicts between religion and homosexuality (as does the documentary Trembling Before G_d
) , Latter Days would truly be engrossing and worthy of the acting talents of Sandvoss, whose sensitive portrayal is often touching and totally believable. Unfortunately, C. Jay Cox's hackneyed script contains so many contrivances that I found myself shaking my head in disbelief at virtually every turn. Not even Charles Dickens manufactures as many coincidental machinations. An ex-Mormon and missionary, Cox certainly knows the territory, he blatantly displays his anti-LDS agenda by stacking the deck with cardboard figures that unsympathetically portray the church as hypocritical homophobes. Only the two lead characters save the melodramatic screenplay from being a total waste, along with intriguing cameos by Jacqueline Bisset (as Christian's boss) and Mary Kay Place (as Aaron's distraught and conflicted mother).

Born and raised in Pocatello, Idaho and the pride of his Mormon parents, Aaron (Elder Davis) arrives in Los Angeles for his two year mission and hires a cab, initially gazing at the urban lights with Lost in Translation fascination and amazingly catching the eye of Christian outside the classy restaurant he works at. Coincidentally, Aaron moves into Christian's apartment complex with three fellow missionaries, and they proceed with programmed scripture study and door knocking to find receptive souls. Meanwhile, Christian's co-workers bet $50 that the infamous party animal can't seduce the underwear off one of his new neighbors—a definite challenge, given the strict LDS doctrine and their protective missionary rules.

Aaron compares the likelihood of a friendship with Christian to his laundry: "We're colors and whites; we don't mix." But despite the improbabilities, the inevitable hookup occurs. Aaron's secret is betrayed by a kiss an hour into the film, leaving a half hour to work in nude lovemaking, thorough bashing of the LDS church, and the expected "feel good" message laden denouement. In the business of "saving souls" Aaron ironically changes Christian profoundly. It's far more difficult to believe the storyline, however, than to catch glimpses of the film's intended message within the actors.

If you're looking for a good plot or character development, seek greener pastures. This film's screenplay remains decidedly amateurish despite occasional snippets of decent dialogue and its noble intentions. Although the situation is certainly believable, the characters lose credibility when the plot requires them to jump through far too many hoops. In a city the size of Los Angeles, how likely is it that our protagonists will catch each other's eye in passing in the city and coincidentally end up living in the same apartment complex. Or that Aaron will accidentally meet up with Christian's grieving boss and comfort her in order to set up the film's resolution. Or that Aaron's loutish missionary partner will conveniently have a bicycle accident to allow for the ill-fated kiss. Or that Salt Lake City will be snowbound just long enough to allow our protagonists one night of bliss . . . You get the idea.

Besides the implausible Jr. high level plot, Cox lazily sketches in supporting characters that serve only to advance the melodrama and to make his case against the LDS church. The crew of elders sharing Aaron's apartment can hardly talk to each other, outside of one making crude remarks about how horny he's getting away from his girlfriend and Ryder (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) spewing over-the-top homophobic phrases or complain about missing his scheduled lunch due to Aaron's Good Samaritan deeds. They also joke about passing gas and satisfy sexual cravings by giving "butch style" back rubs. Crude loutish behavior is fully acceptable to the Mormon missionaries, but an intimate and sensitive kiss horrify. And that doesn't even account for the church officials and Aaron's parents, who can no longer even look their son in the eye after he comes out.

As a story, Latter Days comes across as a simple paint-by-the numbers gay themed film that strikes directly at Mormon dogma, but it has a certain charm due mainly to Sandvoss' Herculean efforts that surpass the pedestrian script. He has some great quiet moments and transforms a potentially hokey metaphor about how a comic strip connects the dots into a sincere and poignant life lesson. Like the character in the film, Sandvoss isn't a pudknocker from Pocatello going through the motions, but instills a measure of belief in the material. Not enough to make this a really good film, but enough to make it a tolerable watch.

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