The events in Amy Kohn‘s documentary examining the practice of Christian Courtship take place largely in Grand Rapids, Michigan, but for most viewers they might as well be taking place on Mars. Chronicling the attempts of a 33-year-old woman to find a husband with the help of her “spiritual parents,” a middle-aged couple who have devoted themselves to the practice, A Courtship is a fascinating example of cinematic ethnography. The film recently received its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Inevitably, viewers who are not so religious minded will find it hard to refrain from passing judgment on the individuals and situations being presented. We are introduced to devout dance instructor Kelly, who’s suffered emotional turmoil as a result of her parents’ divorce when she was a teenager and a series of ill-fated romantic involvements. Although still a virgin, she has indeed kissed men, which is a potential “deal breaker” for those observing the rules of Christian Courtship. Having grown up in Alabama, she’s moved to Michigan and moved in with Ron and Dawn Wright, a Christian couple with two small children who have dedicated themselves to finding her a suitable mate. Ron has started a website, beforethekiss.com, promoting the practice.
Ron in particular seems to truly relish his role in the process, exclaiming that “I get to meet all these really cool guys.” Admitting that his own marriage was initially based on “convenience and sexual attraction,” he laments that he and his wife suffered an “emotional divorce” after three years and is determined that other Christians don’t suffer a similar fate.
Resembling but not quite the same as arranged marriages, Christian Courtship involves its participants in the process. After Kelly meets Ross at a Christian event, the two become Facebook friends, and the young man is invited to dinner at the Wrights’ home to see if he’ll be an appropriate match (he brings his younger brother along). The couple seems to hit it off, but it’s ultimately Ron who’ll make the final decision.
Interrogating Ross about such things as whether he watches Glenn Beck and what he thinks about Obama’s policies towards Israel, Ron quickly takes a liking to the young man. But it’s hard not to feel uncomfortable during such moments as when the older man, inviting Ross to embrace him, gushes, “Who taught you how to hug? You give some the best hugs!” Not to mention when he states that the primary considerations of whether a woman is ready for marriage is if she can cook and clean, and that “I’m the head of the family…Dawn’s role is a supportive role.”
One of the film’s most moving scenes involves Kelly’s trip home to visit her mother and stepfather, who clearly don’t agree with her method of finding a husband. After admitting that he thinks the whole thing is “weird,” the stepfather tearfully tells Kelly that if she’ll come back home he happily serve as her “advocate.”
Much to Ron’s dismay, the relationship between Kelly and Ross ultimately founders due to a theological difference that comes to light after he posts a Facebook comment about a close friend’s death in a shooting accident that he describes as being part of “God’s plan.” When Kelly sternly disagrees, he withdraws from the process, leaving her heartbroken yet again.
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The filmmaker observes the proceedings in an admirably objective, non-judgmental manner, although, as with all documentaries, it’s difficult to discern how her editing choices affected the final product. But it’s safe to say that all but the most fundamentalist viewers will be aghast even while finding themselves sympathetic to the appealingly likeable and vulnerable Kelly.
An eye-opening, emotionally resonant depiction of a fascinating and apparently growing subculture, A Courtship puts a very human face on the issues it addresses. Still, you’ll find it hard not to shudder when Ron, attempting to comfort the grieving Kelly, assures her, “We will keep you as long as we need to.”
Production: Mat Twin Inc.
Director/producer: Amy Kohn
Director of photography: Evan Eames
Editor: Jordan Montminy
Composer: Jon Foy
Not rated, 71 min.