A Courtship is a film about a thing I do not understand. But more than that, it’s about a thing I can’t even begin to understand. The concept of Christian courtship, where a woman waits for God to bring her a husband and will spend her life in her parents’ home until her wedding day, just doesn’t make sense to me. I imagine it doesn’t make much sense to you either.
I know it didn’t make sense to the New York film critics I saw the film with. I know, because they laughed at it, and they laughed at the people in it. They laughed at a belief system that these people hold dear to them. I mean, I laughed too. At least at first. (How can you not? It’s ridiculous.)
But here’s the crucial question, the thing that defines what A Courtship is and what it wants to be: Was I supposed to laugh, or was I merely given the opportunity?
Director: Amy Kohn
Release Date: TBD
If the audience for A Courtship was the people at the Tribeca Film Festival, then it was a film developed with cruel intentions. It was packaged so that those of us on our high horses could point and laugh at the silly people doing the dumb things. And that’s a serious problem, because for all of their faults, the people on display in A Courtship are genuine (pronounced jen-you-ine). They’re the real deal, people who honestly subscribe to a belief that giving away your first kiss to someone other than your eventual spouse is something “you have to live with.”
I don’t imagine that many people who saw that film at Tribeca found that concept anything other than ridiculous. I’ve met some fundamentalists, but I’ve never met someone who believed that you had to save your first kiss for marriage.
But the people behind Before The Kiss Dot Com do. It’s a website all about courtship and purity. It’s run by the subjects of A Courtship, Ron and Dawn. They’ve got two young daughters plus a spiritual older daughter. The former have been raised in courtship, and they’re excited to grow up and become housewives, while the latter came into it after some less-than-stellar experiences in her life. The film is really about her, Kelly. Kelly is over 30 and lives with a family she has no blood relation to. Her father-figure Ron has taken it upon himself to be her guide. He vets any potential suitors and pulls the strings. He certainly does seem to want what’s best for his family. He just has a ridiculous notion of what that means.
Whenever I think about religious fundamentalism, I think about Jesus Camp. I half-joke that it’s the scariest movie I’ve ever seen, far worse than any horror movie. But what’s crucial about that film is the fact that the majority of the people portrayed in that film felt good about what it depicted. They thought it was an accurate representation of them and their beliefs. That’s important. That’s crucial, in fact, because no documentary should be trying to pull a fast one on their subjects. The subjects may not like what they see (though that would obviously be ideal), but they need to believe it’s fair.
My guess is that Ron and Dawn feel it’s pretty fair. Nothing about the film struck me as an attempt to cherry pick the juiciest bits in order to tell the craziest narrative about the crazy people with their crazy ideas. It’s just what it is.
And it’s fascinating. But also kind of sad. It’s sad because these people have dedicated their lives to a system that could make them really happy or deprive them of the opportunity to ever be really happy. It’s sad because you know that secular dating really isn’t that bad, even if being burned or heartbroken feels horrible. It’s sad because you want there to be a happy ending, and this isn’t a narrative film. It’s life, and sometimes life doesn’t work out.
That’s what makes the film sad, because I like Kelly. She seems like a good person. Naive, sure, but pleasant. Happy. Hopeful. And talking about her like that makes me feel awful, because she’s a goddamn adult. She’s older than I am, and she deserves to be treated with respect.
But she also lives in the house of a man who isn’t her father, and she has given him total control over her love life.
And it’s hard to respect that. I don’t begrudge her her faith or her decisions. She is allowed to do whatever she pleases. But I want her to be happy, damn it! I want her to find a nice man and they(then) grow old together and I want it to all work out. And what the film ultimately makes clear is that, as long as Kelly follows down this road, she’s not going to get that.
It didn’t have to be that way. She meets a nice boy. He was raised in courtship, and the two of them hit it off. If this was a chaste romantic film, it would end with their kiss at the altar. It would be a beautiful moment. I wouldn’t agree with the politics of it, but I would clap anyway, because, in a perfect world, Kelly gets to be happy. She deserves to be happy. But A Courtship isn’t a chaste romantic film. It’s not a narrative. It’s a documentary. And this is real life. And sometimes real life just doesn’t do what you want it to. I imagine it was hard for Amy Kohn. She met these characters before it happened, and had things worked out, she would have been there to capture it all. She could have gotten to that kiss on the altar. It could have been a wonderful moment after all of the buildup. But it doesn’t happen. It falls apart over what ultimately sounds like a minuscule difference in belief systems. It’s a moment that defines just how petty the religious debate can be.
And oddly enough, it was the only moment where I really felt I understood the characters. I understood why he couldn’t deal with her beliefs, and why she thought she could deal with his. The emotions made perfect sense to me (though clearly not to some of the people around me), and that made the whole thing ring true. It’s hard with a film like this to really get it, to grasp what it’s going for or get its purpose. When you’re looking at a culture that’s essentially alien to you, you need something to connect to. For me, it was the reality of ideological differences. For others, it will be the belief in true love. Whatever it is, it will serve as the emotional anchor that will allow you to invest yourself in their story. Heck, maybe you’ll even be converted by the idea of courtship.
Well, probably not.