Tania Anderson doesn’t spend all that much time in “The Mission” with the four teenage LDS missionaries that she tracks in the United States before they make their way to her native Finland, giving glimpses of the lives they’ll be leaving behind as Elder Pauole takes target practice with his family, the tall Elder Davis plays basketball, and Sister Bills drives her younger sister around, singing music that she’ll miss during the two years she’s away from home. Then there is Sister Field, who can be seen with her two brothers who obviously support her, yet wouldn’t do what she’s doing, with one explicitly saying he wants nothing to do with the church while noting that the other is gay and wouldn’t be accepted by it. Of the quartet Anderson follows, it’s intriguing when Sister Field appears to be the most passionate about fulfilling this rite of passage when she may come from the least religious of the families, with the chance to learn about who she is apart from all the trappings of the life she’s known having real value to her.
There hasn’t been a film like “The Mission” before made by a secular filmmaker, and it becomes obvious to see why Anderson was afforded access to this formative tradition in the LDS church when surely others haven’t, lacking cynicism when it comes to oft-mocked tradition and gently observing how spreading the gospel around the world is the primary purpose of their travels, but equally important is how it becomes a test of faith, pairing missionaries with one another for nine-week stretches where only the use of the bathroom is when they are not at one another’s side and approaching strangers on the street is more likely to lead to confrontations than conversions. For anyone outside the church whose familiarity with missionaries comes from “The Book of Mormon” or a knock on the door at some point is bound to be surprised by a few of the details of how the experience is constructed, but the film takes on a life of its own as its subjects do, charting how the young men and women are either emboldened or alienated when left to their own devices in a foreign land.
The challenges extend beyond being unable to connect with their loved ones back home more than once a week and grasping a second language when they’re pitching a religion to others that they can’t fully understand themselves just yet, with one missionary perplexed with how a man with four marriages upends their proposal that he’ll be able to spend eternity with his family when neither can be sure which family that’ll be. These incongruities often make “The Mission” riveting when the age of its subjects shows, caught between a desire to be seen as authoritative adults and having to work hard towards answers for themselves, let alone others, particularly in the case of Elder Davis, whose increasing disillusionment towards the whole experience is indicative of larger issues he’s having. Anderson’s incredible sensitivity lets these small, personal epiphanies steadily accumulate in power, yielding a film in which the particulars of a religious practice may be fascinating, but the process of learning to have faith in oneself is even more compelling.