Tania Anderson's Enlightening 'The Mission' Follows the Mormons into Finland

Two Mormons talk to a Finn about God
Sister McKenna Field with her companion Sister Carolina Debiassi doing Church of Latter-Day Saints missionary work on the streets of Helsinki, Finland, as seen in THE MISSION directed by Tania Anderson. Courtesy of Danish Bear Productions

Tania Anderson humanizes the young Mormon missionary in her first feature documentary, The Mission, part of the World Cinema Documentary Competition in 2022. Anderson takes us past the unmistakable uniforms and officious titles (males are referred to as Elder, females as Sister) to follow four brave Mormon young adults assigned to serve in Finland, historically one of Europe's most nonreligious populations. As a rite of passage, they brave language lessons, daily rejection and hostility from the people they are called to love, homesickness, and uncomfortably close living arrangements with strangers, all for the sake of the call.

We meet Elder Pauole, a somewhat reserved boy who shoots firearms with his family; Elder Davis, more outgoing, with a hair peak he protects with pride; Sister Field, an optimist with an easy laugh; and Sister Bills, whose favorite pastime is holding dance parties with her sister in the car. The story takes us through the life cycle of their mission from daily life with their families to orientation at the Missionary Training Center to international travel and work and ending with their return to the fold and "graduation" into being a full member of the church.

A teen boy practices his Mormon message
Elder Tyler Davis holding the Book of Mormon on the grounds of the Provo Missionary Training Center, as seen in THE MISSION directed by Tania Anderson. Courtesy of Danish Bear Productions.

The mission process may surprise you. They are paired with a companion who speaks the language. They spend every moment together except when bathing or using the bathroom. Every nine weeks, they change partners (to eliminate dependency?). There is homesickness and inevitable awkwardness when they must adapt to a new companion. "Companions prepare you for a wife," says Elder Pauole. With so much change, our four friends begin to view each other as surrogate siblings. During the transitions when they meet their new companion, there are lots of hugs and tearful greetings and goodbyes.

Even amongst the evangelical community, Mormons are known mostly as great fodder for jokes. Anderson takes us past the stereotypes to see the person beneath. The camera hovers most often at eye level with these four subjects, getting us close enough to see their elation and disappointment. Endearingly, they view any moment that the conversation isn't shut down as a cause for celebration. We observe their honest conversations sharing how they feel about their work and themselves. Elder Davis quickly became my favorite.

Sister McKenna Field admires her new name tag before embarking on her missionary work in Finland, as seen in THE MISSION directed by Tania Anderson. Courtesy of Danish Bear Productions. 

When we first meet Davis, he has an easy confidence and good sense of humor. He effortlessly chats up the hair stylist who freshens up his fade and then tries to share the Gospel with her. She's polite but uninterested. Later, we realize that underneath that confident swagger lies a person plagued with mental anxiety. Ironically, although Davis starts the movie as the more confident one with Elder Pauole seeming more insecure, by the end, their roles are reversed.

While the four do experience lots of rejection, there are also tender moments when they connect with the people of Finland in powerful ways. One of the group states what seems to be Tania Anderson's thesis: "I wish we could talk to them about normal stuff." Agreed – underneath what seems like a religious barrier, lies four souls made in the image of God. Our shared humanity gives us more in common than different. Anderson opens a window into that common experience, and that's what a good documentary does.

Release info: Playing at Sundance 2022. Go here to see all Sundance 2022 coverage. 

Final score: 4 out of 5