“Handcart” is the seventh entry in the 2 1/2-year-old Mormon cinema genre that began with “God’s Army,” and it is the most ambitious in terms of scope and subject matter.
It is also, sadly, one of the worst.
I can think of few films that were made by nicer people, and with nobler intentions, than this one. The story of the Mormon pioneers has great dramatic potential, but it is squandered here with a rickety script and some terrible acting.
Writer/director Kels Goodman sets his film within the ill-fated Martin handcart company that left too late in the season in 1856 and subsequently lost 150 of its 500 members to cold and starvation.
But first we meet Sam Hunter (Jaelan Petrie), a 20-ish man in Iowa City who has been taught to hate the Mormons by his snively shopowner uncle (Johnny Biscuit, delivering perhaps the worst performance of the year).
Fate intervenes, however, and Sam falls in love with Abigail (Stephanie Albach), a British immigrant and new Mormon convert who has stopped in town with her fellow saints before heading to Salt Lake City.
Sam is baptized a Mormon — not because he believes it, he assures his uncle, but because he wants to get close enough to Abigail to convince her Mormonism is false.
Why someone who has joined a church solely to expose its fraudulency would then follow that church across harsh terrain toward Utah is beyond me — it seems like a lot of work just to prove a point — but that’s what Sam does. Along the way, he apparently becomes truly converted, but darned if we’re shown why, how or by whom.
There is more than sufficient tragedy on the trek — by the end, people are literally tripping over dead bodies — but only in the sense of “tragedy” that includes all deaths of all nice people. Even when major characters die, it is hard to feel more than mild sadness, because even the major characters are dull ciphers. Almost without exception, the acting is flat and unconvincing. You rarely believe any of these folks are 19th-century pioneers instead of 21st-century amateur actors in uncomfortable costumes. (The all-you-can-eat buffet of bad accents doesn’t help, either.)
Among the decent performances are: Chris Kendrick as “Moose,” a rough-and-tumble figure with a heart of gold, or something like that; Gretchen Condie as Abigail’s younger sister Sarah; and Joel Bishop as company leader Edward Martin.
Among the bad performances are: just about everyone else, though some of them, like Jaelan Petrie as Sam and Lincoln Hoppe as his brother, seem to be good actors trapped in underwritten roles.
But the film’s most egregious sin is that it’s boring. The character arcs, when they exist, don’t flow; characters just wind up different, with no examination of what caused the change. The film asks excellent questions about faith — like why God would drop a snowstorm on a group of people who were only trying to do his will — but doesn’t answer them. The survivors seem to emerge with stronger faith, but again, the movie doesn’t show us why or how. The film is unsure what it wants to say, and what it does say, it does it clumsily.
C- (1 hr., 55 min.; )