Salt and Seed
Duck Beach to Absurdity: A Review of "Duck Beach to Eternity"
The film does not ignore the predicament of single Mormon men, either. In fact, one of the film's main takeaway messages, for this viewer anyway, is the heartless indifference of female sexual nature toward men who, though no fault of their own, lack physical or social prowess. "Kind of a lot of dorks here," murmurs Elle, portrayed as a sexy bombshell, as she surveys the buffet of male bodies on the beach. Time and time again, Bryan is ignored, excluded, or pitied by the women he tries to meet—always "nicely," of course, in true Mormon fashion. Even Stacey, who has experienced the humiliation of romantic rejection and who is otherwise a tremendously likable character, speaks of the "36-year-old male virgins" who would be her natural LDS dating partners with such derision and disgust that I cringed in my seat. Bryan's lot, as a male mid-single without the benefit of natural charisma or status, must be tremendously disheartening. The good humor and persistence with which he carries on through loneliness and discouragement are a tribute to his resilient strength of character.
It might be objected that the constant sexual appraisal to which these young women and men subject one another is not only an effect of relaxed modesty norms but also of the social distortion introduced by their culture's intense pressure to marry young. This seems to be the thesis of the film, which opens with a video montage of church leaders admonishing young men to marry. The marriage mandate hangs like a foggy marine layer over every moment and every interaction of the weekend. Each new face and figure presents itself as a candidate not for a weekend of fun in the sun, but for an eternity of marriage. No wonder the scrutiny is so intense!
The social and personal magnitude of marriage shadows the four subjects' self-understanding. Each one frames his or her personal history in terms of near misses (or painful collisions) with marriage. Bryan grieves deeply over the recent death of his father: the last time he saw his father alive, his dad handed him a $20 bill and told him to go take out a girl. Bryan experiences his unmarried state as a personal failure and a deep disappointment to his dead father.
Walking the problem back another step, then, one must ask why we pressure these young people so strongly to marry so soon? The film offers a brief thumbnail of the Mormon plan of salvation to explain the importance placed on marriage as the only path to exaltation. But a more immediate, more persuasive answer to the question is available: it's sex, stupid. Long-term celibacy is really, really hard for autonomous adults, grown-ups in their twenties and thirties who actually do have the emotional maturity and life experience for a healthy sex life. Celibacy is not impossible for individuals, but it's not realistic as a decades-long default in a generic Mormon life script. Ryan ruefully admits that at 34 he's "ready to donate my wiener to science."
While it doesn't seem to be an explicit aim of the filmmakers, the tangled web of causality connecting chastity, early marriage, and stigmatization of singles is the film's most fertile exploration. If we're serious as a community about requiring chastity before marriage for men and women, we will always have early marriages. Conversely, if our community norms allow the age of marriage to drift up in line with national averages, fewer young adults will remain chaste. It's a thorny social dilemma: the film alludes to the perils of too-early marriage in the several older-and-wiser divorced voices that are featured, but it also illustrates the social and sexual dysfunction that can result from groups of young people remaining single into their thirties.
Rosalynde Welch is an independent scholar who makes her home in St. Louis, Missouri, with her husband and four children.