A quirky look at a small town's annual Passion Play gets a dull and contrived treatment in this documentary.
Jesus Town USA (Hot Docs Review)
For the last 88 years, The Holy City of the Wichitas, located within the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in Lawton, OK, has played host to an annual Easter passion play, “The Prince of Peace.” But this is no simple reenactment in a church parking lot. Produced on 66 acres of land cultivated to look like biblical Jerusalem, the production is so expansive, it requires its actors to pantomime their actions and mouth their dialogue while other actors recite the lines over a PA system for viewers situated in Audience Hill. It is a labor of love for local residents who, over decades and across generations, have worked hard every year as actors, producers, costume designers, volunteers, etc. The production, though, has a problem.
The actor who has played Jesus Christ for the last eight years is retiring from the role, so the producers must replace him, and quickly. They do so with Zack, a young man whose body type might not align with the common image of the Son of God, but whose flowing locks and goodhearted enthusiasm have everyone excited for the coming year’s show. This puts pressure on Zack not simply to perform, but to decide how to reveal to the town a secret he carries; it’s a secret that might jeopardize his role in the play.
There are three main story threads in Jesus Town, USA. The first is the history of the 88-year tradition, and the film provides a well-measured lesson on it. The filmmakers are wise to avoid getting lost in too much timeline detail, opting instead to focus mostly on an oral history. It serves the material well, especially considering some of the town’s residents have been around for more than 40 years, so there’s a lot of “speaking from experience” presented. These anecdotes are sprinkled throughout the film.
The second is the commentary on faith in America and how this town is carrying that torch. The film touches on this subject early when it mentions a higher-level concern that the passion play’s attendance has been steadily dwindling for years. At its peak (and that was early in its history), the play boasted an audience in excess of 200,000 people, but current numbers are nowhere near that mark. Locals speculate the drop-off in interest has to do with society drifting away from spirituality. The film goes no further than this, leaving the hypothesis of America’s heartland as the only possible reason for the decline. There is no analysis to back up these claims of what the fine people of middle America believe to be true.
The third story thread is the basket in which the filmmakers place almost all their Easter eggs: the Quest for the new Christ. While this is the most compelling of the three themes, it is also the most poorly executed, and to great detriment to the film.
Jesus Town, USA’s press notes makes a comparison between this film and Christopher Guest’s Waiting For Guffman. The similarities — in both content and tone — are clearly recognizable, and suggest inspiration was drawn from the Guest’s film. The problem is Guest’s film is a “mockumentary” cast with professional actors working from a Hollywood script (when not brilliantly improvising). This film is supposed to be an actual documentary featuring everyday townspeople who want their story told. Mintz and Pinder take the denizens of the latter and attempt to tell their tale with the awkward quirkiness and mocking humor of the former and it simply doesn’t work. It puts its subjects in a something of a negative light.
One major sin is that many scenes are clearly staged, forcing the locals to have to act. With great respect to what they do each Easter, they cannot act, and every scene is as challenging to watch as the one before it. It is no fault of theirs for that, by the way. That blame rests with the filmmakers. The townspeople are also framed in ways to suggest they are simple people who, while not necessarily full-blown intolerant, are at least intolerance-adjacent, and that’s unfair. If these people are in on the (unfunny) joke, that is never revealed, so there is no reason to think they are.
The big sin, though, is how Zack is presented. He seems like a very nice guy, and the secret he wrestles with revealing is worthy of genuine pathos. Instead, he’s presented as something of the town rube – the kid who plays jokes at the drive-thru speaker box of the local burger joint; the kid who owns nunchucks because he always wanted to be a ninja; the kid who spends his downtime playing video games while his girlfriend watches him play. This is great for Zack; I deny him none of the simple pleasures life offers him. It simply makes for dull storytelling, and a filmmaker needs to treat the centerpiece of the film with more importance than treatment reserved for a character player.
There’s a real documentary waiting to be made about the town known here as Jesus Town, USA. Unfortunately, this wannabe mockumentary isn’t it.