DISCLAIMER: You should not even listen to me about this movie because my friends made it and I am a biased liar. Ask anyone. I’ve never said anything critical about a friend. It’s just not in my nature. Heck, I have a hard time criticizing strangers, let alone people I know. So I am not to be trusted here. Ignore me. Don’t even read this review. Turn off your computer and throw it into the ocean.
Standing on the shoulders of the well-meaning but mostly lame Mormon comedies that have come before it, “Once I Was a Beehive” manages to be funny, sweet, AND sincere (a rare combination), with a lovely story about girl power, acceptance, and avoiding bears. It’s set at a week-long summer camp for teenage Mormon girls, and is aimed more at that demographic than at mine. But in truth, its sunny idealism and practical approach to faith make it almost universally appealing, unless you’re some kind of monster.
In a smart narrative choice, we’re introduced to the world of girls camp through the eyes of an outsider: 16-year-old Lane Speer (Paris Warner), whose widowed mother (Amy Biedel) has just married a Mormon man (Brett Merritt). While they honeymoon, Lane spends the summer with her new step-cousins, including 12-year-old Phoebe (Mila Smith), a precocious bundle of anxiety and fear. It’s the first year Phoebe is old enough for girls camp, but she doesn’t want to go, especially not without Roxy, her comfort dog. Lane, generous of spirit despite grieving the loss of her father and not being totally OK yet with mom’s remarriage, offers to tag along so Phoebe will have a friend.
There are 10 girls total, a few of whom blend together as background rather than as distinct characters. Among those that register are bossy queen bee Bree (Clare Niederpruem); class clown Mindy (Kaley McCormack); and boy-crazy Charlotte (Allie Jennings). The whole gang is escorted into the woods by their Young Women’s leaders: Phoebe’s mom, Holly (Hailey Smith); Bree’s supernaturally enthusiastic mother, Carrie Carrington (Lisa Valentine Clark), whose name makes Lane think of “the alter ego of a Christian superhero”; and Nedra Rockwell (Barta Heiner), a salty old ex-Marine who prefers the camping and survival skills over the froofy scrapbooking and skit-performing that go on here. Their earnest Mormon bishop (Ken Craig) is here too, arriving in the sidecar of Nedra’s motorcycle.
Written and directed by Maclain Nelson (who never went to girls camp) from a story he conceived with Hailey Smith (who did), the film finds a lot of avenues for humor without overdoing any of them. There are tent mishaps and weather-related shenanigans; some silly flirting with the hunky park rangers; and some drama arising from the fact that even nice Mormon girls can be total b-words. But Nelson doesn’t indulge much in stereotypes (which would be antithetical to the film’s message of being kind to everyone regardless of differences), instead mining good-natured laughs from simple character conflicts.
More importantly, Nelson and his cast give the movie an abundance of heart. Lane and Phoebe’s parallel heartaches help them bond, while Bree comes to grips with the insecurities that fuel her quest for excellence. All of the girls (some of them young adults, actually) give authentic, charming performances, in particular Paris Warner and Mila Smith in the crucial roles of sad, vulnerable Lane and Phoebe. Your heart goes out to them immediately, and you root for their happiness. Barta Heiner, a veteran of Utah stage and screen and a beloved fixture in the BYU theater department, brings additional lump-in-the-throat goodness to Nedra Rockwell.
Some vaguely spiritual lessons are learned as the girls and their leaders face trials of faith, but the movie isn’t interested in proselytizing, and what religious elements are included aren’t unique to Mormonism. (You’ll hear a couple of prayers that could have come out of any Christian mouth.) The real point is to show young people forming friendships and learning to be decent, and maybe to squeeze a few tears out of us along the way. The movie has an infectious optimism that, for a viewer, translates into pure joy.
B+ (1 hr., 59 min.; )