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A first-of-its-kind new documentary on Latter-day Saint missionaries is notable for several reasons, but one is its open portrayal of one elder’s struggle with mental illness and how the church supported him.

“The Mission” premiered Monday at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. The filmmakers followed four missionaries from their homes and farewells to the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah, and to their assignments in Finland.

It’s the first time the church has given an outside filmmaker access to a missionary’s entire mission, but much of the documentary will be extremely familiar to Latter-day Saints.

Director Tania Anderson believes Missionary Department leaders agreed to the film when she said it would be a coming-of-age story. It certainly is that. She has called it a version of the hero’s journey.

The missionaries clearly struggle early on, especially with the language barrier — Finnish is among the toughest languages to learn.

By the end, they indeed have come of age. They grow into their missionary service. They master the language, mature, gain confidence and become leaders who enjoy both Finland and their missions.

Their collective love of their missions is most powerfully rendered when Sister McKenna Field returns home. When a local leader releases her from her service, she weeps as she reluctantly removes her name tag.

“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is grateful to the Finnish documentary crew who made a significant investment in time and effort, to offer a comprehensive and independent look at the missionary experience of these four young Latter-day Saints as they served as missionaries in Finland,” church spokesman Sam Penrod said.

“The Mission” is beautifully rendered but a flat chronology. Typical missionary highlights like conversions and baptisms feel the same as awkward street contacting. That appears intentional. Anderson leaves viewers to reach their own conclusions about what happens.

When Elder Tyler Davis experiences serious depression, it stands out.

“I just thought it was normal, and I still think it’s normal, to like, have panic attacks and like have suicidal thoughts and be, like, extremely depressed,” he tells a companion. “And now I have anxiety and (feel) all over the place, like a, like bipolarity or, you know, whatever.”

Davis begins to see a therapist who works with missionaries in several missions. While he’s grateful for the help, his struggles deepen.

Finally, the decision is made that he should return home in October 2020, about nine months sooner than expected.

The film shows him sitting for the final time with the mission leader, President Ilkka Aura, who assures him that he is loved and that this outcome, too, is acceptable. The president shares the story, included in Latter-day Saint scripture, about a long-ago church member, Oliver Granger, who Joseph Smith gave a difficult, far-off assignment which Granger is only able to complete partially due to circumstances out of his control.

President Aura reads the scripture to Davis and personalizes it for him: “Therefore let no man despise my servant, Oliver Granger” — “or Elder Davis” Aura adds — “but let the blessings of my people be upon him forever and ever.”

“This is the one who failed in this assignment, and the Lord says no, ‘You will be remembered for generations,’” President Aura says. “As you know you’re called by a prophet of God. You’ve been assigned by an apostle of the Lord.”

Near the end of the film, Davis is shown playing the drums at home. He is still struggling. He says others see him have 1,000 good moments in a day, “but I don’t feel good at all.”

Yet, Davis is positive about his mission when he attends the homecoming of one of the other missionaries, Elder Kai Pauole. The film closes with the two men walking to the Payson Utah Temple. As they walk away from the camera, Pauole says he would recommend a mission to his children.

“I can echo that,” Davis says. “It’ll change your life.”

During a panel discussion about the film sponsored by Sundance, Davis said he is doing better now.

“It’s been a beautiful journey,” he said. “It’s awesome to have gone to Finland, and to have been part of a culture where you’re going to be completely isolated. And I feel like that helped me in my mental journey to be able to learn how to love myself. ... I still think about Finland, every single day. I would say that the four of us do. Finland definitely changed our lives, and I’d say all for the better.”

Davis said watching “The Mission” was both rewarding and difficult as he remembered how he felt in the depth of his depression.

“The biggest thing for me is it’s awesome to see the personal growth that I’ve seen inside of myself, going back to remembering the depressed feelings of how I felt before and the uncertainty of things. ... Without mental illness, I don’t think my life would have been as beautiful to me, along with Finland, of coming home and learning how to love myself and going to therapy. But I’ve been doing a lot better, and I’m really proud of myself and I love myself a lot more.”

Davis and the other missionaries said the film crew was a support and a comfort.

“We thank the producers for their professionalism and the respect they showed to the missionaries and their beliefs during the production,” said Penrod, the church spokesman. “We invite those who see the program to learn more about the restored gospel of Jesus Christ by visiting with missionaries who serve in their local community.”

Davis had a message for others experiencing mental illness. He said therapy has been healing.

“And I had lovely companions that listened, lovely dear missionary friends that listened, and lovely Finns that listened,” he added. “So talking with a mission therapist wasn’t my only (resource). For other missionaries or other people out there (who need help), find different people that definitely love and care about you, and be open with them. ... Find those people that you can definitely open up to and relate to, because that really helped my journey a lot.”

My recent stories

BYU speaker says nonviolent protesters win allies when they love their oppressors (Jan. 25)

Why Kiribati ordered a COVID-19 lockdown when Latter-day Saint missionaries returned home (Jan. 25)

Latter-day Saint missionaries temporarily leave Ukraine due to political tensions (Jan. 24)

BYU responds to federal investigation of its LGBTQ policies (Jan. 20)

Official new pamphlet aims to help Latter-day Saints understand, treat Muslims better (Jan. 20)

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