I went into the process wanting and expecting to like Latter Days. It was purported to have an attractive cast -- including Jacqueline Bisset -- and a light-hearted but heartfelt love story that tried to go a bit beyond "Boy meets boy, boy beds boy, boy and boy live happily ever after". All of this is true; there is much to like in the movie, and overall I'd say it's quite worthwhile. But I still find myself feeling an undeniable ambivalence toward certain aspects of the story.
The primary plot line is simple enough: Christian, a young, cute, sexually "easy" gay man (Wes Ramsey) enters into a lighthearted bet that he can "convert" -- i.e., seduce -- one of the four young Mormon "missionaries" that have moved in next door. But young, cute, sexually-inexperienced Aaron (Steve Sandvoss), the missionary who becomes the focus of his efforts, ends up challenging Christian's shallowness, inspiring him to grow emotionally and spiritually. All sort of by accident, while trying to deal with his own homosexuality, which he is -- understandably! -- having increasing trouble denying and suppressing.
The characters of Christian and Aaron are both likable enough in their own ways without being too perfect. Christian is a shallow man who views sex purely as a pass-time, but he's essentially harmless and completely loyal to and protective of his friends. Aaron, though a "missionary" who goes from door to door trying to convert nonbelievers -- an occupation with which I personally have grave philosophical problems -- is not at all personally pushy about his beliefs. (Indeed, when one of his companions obnoxiously spouts some "God hates fags" rhetoric to Christian, Aaron charmingly tries to defuse the situation with humor and an apologetic tone.) He is quietly funny and genuinely empathetic, and is sincerely engaged in a search for meaning in his life.
Clearly, both of them are meant to be endearing to the audience, and they certainly are. Clearly, we're supposed to root for them to get together, and we certainly do. Clearly, Christian should become a more "substantial" person to be worthy of Aaron, and he certainly will. Clearly, the whole "bet" thing must come back to haunt Christian, and it certainly does. And clearly, love must win out over religious bigotry and self-hate, and... well, that would be telling. But you can pretty much guess.
And that's essentially the problem with the movie: We can pretty much guess what's going to happen -- at least in broad terms -- because we've seen it all before in one form or another: The whole "shallow but likable individual attempts to seduce 'deep' individual on a bet or dare and becomes transformed for the better in the process" thing. If we know enough about the story to want to see it, we pretty much know where it must end up. (And how we're "supposed" to feel about it.) Fold in the story of a closeted believer trying to find self-acceptance in a homophobic society, and we know what sort of issues will be addressed there, as well. Once the filmmakers decide to make such a movie, then, their challenge is to make the details interesting and believable, throw us a curve ball or two, and make it all matter to us by the end. Ultimately, I did care what happened to the characters; it did matter. But much of the plot along the way felt as if it were being written by rote, and either the believability or the significance of what was presented suffered somewhat. It's difficult to go into sufficient detail without giving too much away, but I'll try.
We start with Christian's dramatic protestation of love after he manages to track Aaron down (which he must do for certain plot-driven reasons): This is delivered after they've had a single desperate kiss and no real discussions or heart-to-hearts, other than Aaron blowing up at Christian for being so shallow. Yet we're supposed to believe that Christian is actually thinking Aaron may be the great love of his life. Now, it would be perfectly appropriate for Christian to have followed Aaron out of general friendly concern and his own sense of responsibility for stuff that has happened up to that point. But the whole, "What if you're the great love of my life?" thing is simply not believable.
It reminds me of the scene in the film Jeffrey where the main love interest tells the title character, "I may very well even love you", after they've had a grand total of perhaps 15 minutes of interaction together, other than one shared exercise session at the gym. As much as I enjoyed that movie, and as much as I enjoyed this one, moments like this simply do not make sense. In both films, it's as if we're missing ten or fifteen minutes' worth of screen time showing a montage of the relationship blossoming. I realize we're supposed to just "go with the flow", but to make us feel like it really matters the story has to flow from itself, not from our understanding of what the filmmakers must have intended. (Especially when that understanding is based on our recognition that the story is contrived!)
Then we have Christian's budding involvement with "Angel Food", a charitable food delivery service for individuals debilitated by HIV. He starts participating in this after Aaron's blow-up at him, to feel like he's contributing something. There's nothing really wrong with the whole sequence, but it pretty much goes where one might expect: Christian uses his pretty-boy powers of clever bitchiness to get the initially-scary emaciated AIDS patient to eat when he doesn't want to, ends up bonding with the guy, and so forth. It's all just too... well,... "on the nose". Even to the point that when the patient, who is semi-psychic, "reads" Christian early on, he reveals that he gets "nothing but snow" from him, as if Christian were just a blank TV screen because he's still too shallow to have any real "substance", yet.
Aaron's story at this point is somewhat more interesting, though it still strikes me as proceeding a bit too predictably from A to B to C. Without going into too much detail, I'll simply say that I'd be interested to learn how accurate is the film's depiction of the Mormon mindset and official philosophy regarding gay people. If the church and its membership really are as openly hateful and disdainful of gays as they are presented, then I guess certain plot points aren't unreasonable. But others become more difficult to fit into the picture, including the fact that Aaron is as generally well-adjusted as he is throughout most of the film. Still, when we see him at the end of his ordeal, our hearts can't help but go out to him. Even though we know we're being manipulated emotionally, it works. Sandvoss' acting and the direction are good enough to pull it off.
The final resolution is dependent on several interlocking coincidences that occur throughout the film. When I saw the first such coincidence -- an unanticipated meeting between two characters at a hospital fairly early-on -- I took it for another example of contrived, even lazy, writing. (Although the scene taken by itself is quite nice). But I soon realized that the mounting "coincidences" were actually part of the theme of the movie: That, whether due to God, fate, karma, or "whatever", things do fall into place and make sense, and that this is an example of the fundamental nature of the universe, to be (as Aaron puts it) "beautiful, funny, and good".
Now, this is a worthwhile message, and a sentiment with which I don't completely disagree (at least in spirit). And I guess that one could say we have to give the filmmakers a pass on all the coincidences, given that they were using them not only plot wise but thematically. But still, especially when added to the overall plot, it smacks of being a bit too easy, like choosing to take a class you know you can pass without studying rather than one that will really make you work (and learn). It certainly would have been possible to express this idea in a more subtle way, a way which would actually have had relevance to those of us who look for beauty and humor in the world and in our lives without experiencing so many convenient coincidences that make us go, "Hmmm".
But again, having said all that: It still works. The same "After School Special" sort of simplicity that infuses the entire story also grants it a certain earnestness that I couldn't help but find endearing. So as the film progressed I ended up being drawn along with it, even as I made mental notes of the various criticisms cited above (and others, besides). And when the ending that I knew we had to be working toward finally arrived, I found it satisfying emotionally, if not particularly so intellectually. Even on the second viewing.
I'm sure that part of my positive response is due to Sandvoss's and Ramsey's acting and the quiet grace of Jacqueline Bisset. Sandvoss's Aaron is such a well-intentioned innocent that you can't help but want to hug him. And though I couldn't avoid feeling that Ramsey's portrayal of Christian lacked a certain depth at first, I decided that much of that can be attributed to merely doing a good job of portraying a shallow character. (What I'll call the "bear scene" gives him a chance to show a bit more of his acting acumen, and he succeeds well in it.)
In general, the film's dialog is fast-paced and the jokes are on-target. The same can be said of the directing and editing, which include some stylish touches (one example of which would be the interesting presentation of the "shock treatment" scene in the second half). I also feel the lighting and cinematography deserve special mention, as they make the film as a whole as visually attractive as its cast.
The coda of the story has Aaron reiterating his belief that the world is fundamentally “beautiful, funny, and good”. Even with my reservations about aspects of the writing, the same is pretty much true for the film, as well.
Click here to purchase "Latter Days" at Amazon.com
Rated R For Strong Sexual Content And Language.
DVD extras include a commentary track, deleted scenes, and behind-the-scenes featurette.