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Relating the 1998 kidnapping of two American Mormons in Russia, writer-director: Garrett Batty has crafted a film that emphasizes matters of faith over conventional thriller elements. That approach clicked for The Saratov Approach during its limited release in the fall, when it proved a word-of-mouth hit among young Mormon moviegoers, topping $1 million in grosses within a month and setting a box-office record for films revolving around the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As it begins a platform expansion beyond LDS-friendly Utah and Idaho, the PG-13 feature is not likely to maintain that sort of fervor. Concerned more with inspirational messages than dramatic subtlety, it remains an item best suited to believers.
Batty and cinematographer Jeremy Prusso use wintry Ukraine locations to good effect in the brief lead-up to the abduction of Travis Tuttle (Corbin Allred) and Andrew Propst (Maclain Nelson), who are halfway through their two-year mission in Russia. When they’re not teaching English to kids or helping the elderly, they traipse cheerfully through the streets of Saratov, a port city 400 miles southeast of Moscow, eager to engage with anyone who expresses an interest in learning more about their faith.
The transparently insincere questions about Christianity from a young man, Nikolai (Nikita Bogolyubov), are a red flag to Propst — and the audience — while Tuttle sees only the chance to minister to a soul. Their nearly week-long ordeal begins the instant they enter Nikolai’s apartment; beaten and gagged, they’re transported to another dingy location, a $300,000 ransom on their heads. The quick-thinking Propst goes to work trying to win over their seemingly ambivalent abductor, who does the bidding of the wild-haired Sergei (Alex Veadov), architect of the plot and a naval hero turned something else, never quite defined beyond his criminality and general, leather-jacket-wearing godlessness.
By contrast, the missionaries — or elders, per church nomenclature — are the picture of earnest wholesomeness in their sweaters, ties and nametags. Building upon the script’s clear cues, Allred and Nelson lend shadings to the duo’s personality differences: Tuttle is emotional, at first easily defeated and ready to cooperate with their captors, while Propst remains ever-resourceful in his determination to escape. The performances are solid, but it’s a long stretch to pass these actors off as 20, the age of their characters.
In his second feature, after 2009’s Scout Camp, Batty treats his material in straightforward fashion (settling down after a choppy, fussy action sequence at the film’s beginning), and his production values are mostly assured. He weaves a few flashbacks and one effective dream sequence into the story, which comes to focus on the two men’s conversations about basketball, family, childhood and, above all, their religious devotion.
However obvious in their intent, and however undermined by the insistent uplift of the score, those scenes have a certain weight and conviction, especially when the men reach a spiritual turning point in their plans to free themselves. But Batty fares less well in stateside sequences involving both sets of parents and the Mormon senator (Bart Johnson) who offers his prayers. News broadcasts serve as conspicuous fonts of narrative exposition. Most awkward is a phone call to Tuttle’s parents from a fellow Mormon who was kidnapped 20 years earlier in Argentina. It’s a sermon posing as dialogue, and though it might go to the heart of the filmmaker’s purpose, it stops the movie cold.
While acknowledging the unwillingness of the U.S. or the church to negotiate with the kidnappers, Batty’s screenplay accentuates connectedness through faith and the power of prayer. As for the power of the film, had the dramatization been less preachy, it might have been in a better position to reach beyond the choir.
Opens: Friday, Jan. 10 (Purdie Distribution)
Production: Three Coins Productions in association with Saratov Films
Cast: Corbin Allred, Maclain Nelson, Nikita Bogolyubov, Alex Veadov
Writer-director: Garrett Batty
Producers: Jake Van Wagoner, Maclain Nelson, Jonathan T. Turner, Garrett Batty
Executive producers: Bob Carter, Brit and Bridgette Server, Eric Woodman, Mark Holt, Lionel L.R. Welch
Director of photography: Jeremy Prusso
Production designer: Heather Reid
Music: Robert Allen Elliott
Costume designer: Becky Swasey
Editor: Connor O’Malley
PG-13, 101 min.
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