Duck Beach to Eternity, the film creation of collaborators Stephen Frandsen, Laura Naylor, and Hadleigh Arnst, is smart and delightfully entertaining from end to end. The film takes its name and subject matter from an annual social gathering of Mormon singles in Duck Beach, NC. Hundreds of LDS men and women from all over the country converge on gigantic beach houses for a weekend of beach volleyball, non-alcoholic drinking games, and the search for an eternal companion.
The film follows four principal subjects, two of whom, Melissa and Ryan, are picture-perfect Mormon specimens who look fresh off the set of a temple movie. Melissa, 23, is a blond, bubbly dancer; Ryan, 34, is a chiseled real-estate developer; both live in Utah and traveled cross-country to attend the event. It's clear in their interviews that both Ryan and Melissa are keen to protect the Church's image, and this slight note of defensiveness combined with their flawless physical images make them tempting targets for the filmmakers. Indeed, the camera does have a bit of gentle fun at their expense, silently cutting from interview footage to beach footage in order to deflate a particular statement, for example. The funniest is a rapid cut from Melissa posing in a bikini for the camera to Ryan saying earnestly, "We obviously value modesty." Nevertheless, the tone remains affectionate and both subjects come off as decent and likable one-dimensional characters.
Ryan and Melissa function primarily as foils for the two emotional centers of the film, Bryan and Stacey. The schema becomes clear rather quickly: if Melissa and Ryan represent an ideal image of Mormon singledom, Bryan and Stacey represent its flawed, hilarious, painful, and redemptively human reality. Stacey, 36, is a divorced attorney with a salty tongue, a great sense of humor, and a deep spiritual seriousness. Bryan, 32, is a high school Latin teacher, skinny and bald as a newborn baby, who has a penchant for quoting Cicero to girls and sporting his Hector Lavoe t-shirt collection. He is socially and physically awkward, terminally nerdy, but also infinitely vulnerable and disarmingly open with the camera. You can't not love him. He is the wounded, beating heart of the film.
The filmmakers' great theme—once you get beyond the gimmicky "OMG! A sober, Mormon spring break, how quaint!"—is, of course, sex. It's everywhere (after all, these are young single adults) and nowhere (remember, they're Mormon). At first glance, the Mormon singles scene at Duck doesn't look terribly different from any other young, heterosexual dating scene, minus the alcohol. The beach setting, carnival atmosphere, and intense competition for attention all contribute to a temporary suspension of the modesty norms that typically govern young Mormons' dress and behavior. Shoulders, thighs, and chests, both male and female, are on prominent display in the party houses, and it's fascinating to watch the dynamic unfold.
On the one hand, the unbridled environment grants some of the young women—the beautiful ones like Melissa, naturally—a new measure of power and self-possession in their interactions with both sexes. Melissa is in her element on the beach, confident and commanding. On the other hand, Stacey is left in a no-win bind, visibly anxious at the thought of wearing a bikini yet also eager to attract male attention for herself. And even for beautiful Melissa, social status comes at a high price, namely the constant scrutiny of the desiring gaze. Melissa is the object of three distinct and powerful gazes throughout the film: the sexual gaze of the men surrounding her, the quizzical gaze of the camera (which, to the filmmakers' credit, keeps bikini-leering to a minimum), and the implicit gaze of the outside world on Mormonism. This compounded scrutiny puts intense pressure on the young woman, a constant expectation that she perform her gender and her religion perfectly, and one begins to detect an edge of desperation in her giggles and flirtations with the camera.
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.