Once I Was a Beehive is a culture comedy squarely framed by soulful human concerns. 16-year-old Lane (played by Paris Warner) loses her loving father to cancer. After only a year, her mother marries a Mormon widower and Lane spends their honeymoon with her new extended family – including her anxiety-riddled new step-cousin, 12-year-old Phoebe (played by Mila Smith). It’s camp time for the girls, and Lane decides to join her new aunt and timid cousin on the week-long adventure with a half-dozen crazy young women.
This movie is a light among LDS comedies. While there are definitely culture-specific jokes and references, Lane is not a member and the movie is not a conversion story. Instead, the film demonstrates healthy inter-religious friendships, encouraging common Christian values, mutual respect, acceptance on open grounds, and dialogue light on cultural terms and common Church phrases. The camp director, the quirky and powerful Sister Nedra Rockwell (Berta Heiner), demonstrates this acceptance best when Lane demands why they care about her and her challenges. The gruff leader replies with all sincerity, “If you’re with us, you’re family.”
The girls in the camp are, as in real life, a mixed bag of personalities. Laurel president Bree Carrington (Clare Niederpruem) and her Young Women president mother Carrie (Lisa Clark), model what happens when a full year of careful, prayerful, enthusiastic preparation meets the chaos of girls in the woods. Not everyone has her heads in the clouds, as demonstrated by Sister Rockwell. The motorcycle-riding former Army nurse with an independent streak a mile wide not only lives outside whatever Lane believes is “typical” for a Mormon, she’s a well-balanced character with a deep testimony.
Along with the movie’s triumph of making an LDS cultural rite accessible to outside audiences, the acting is wonderful and has received high praise in many reviews. These young actresses, especially leads Paris Warner and Mila Smith, are sincere and hold up their roles well even in the more emotionally rocking scenes.
Director Maclain Nelson, who directed and starred in The Saratov Approach, manages to walk a very careful balance. The whole movie manages to walk a comfortable middle ground between poking fun at Church culture and addressing the wonderful and quietly miraculous spirit of a successful girls camp experience.
Young Women and their mothers will definitely appreciate this movie, though everyone ought to keep the tissue boxes handy. Those who are not members will certainly appreciate it as well, especially if they have experienced a few of the special quirks of Mormon company. Emotional themes are addressed, including loss and the grieving process. While there is some peril, be assured there are happy endings in store. This is a longer movie and may feel a bit draggy, but sticking to the end is worth it!