What About Charly?
…..by Thomas C. Baggaley
In light of the recent release of Jack Weyland’s Charly on video and DVD, I have a couple of confessions to make. First off, I have never read the book. I might be in the minority there among Latter-day Saints of my generation, because according to an estimate published before the film came out, over 250,000 copies of the book had sold since it was first published in 1980. In fact, Charly (the book) was the God’s Army of LDS fiction, the first to demonstrate there was a viable market for novels by Mormons about Mormons. It’s not that I was completely adverse to reading it. I just never got around to it.
Part of it had to do with the fact that during the 80’s there was also a lot of interest in LDS music – there was even an AM radio station that played LDS music all the time – but the production values on about half of the songs that were circulating around at the time were not up to professional quality and probably would not have even gotten played once if they didn’t have the “LDS music” label and the ready-made audience of members of the church who were starving for music that they could trust. What did that have to do with the most popular LDS book this side of the scriptures? Well, as a teenager, although I loved to read, I just figured that the situation was similar for LDS novels. I read a few of them, and found a couple of them to be quite good, but I assumed that the percentages among LDS novels were about the same as I was hearing in the music and didn’t pay much attention to most of them. Charly got ignored along with the rest.
My second confession gets to more to the point. Charly (the film) made me laugh and cry. You might wonder why that’s such a big confession. It wouldn’t be, except that from reading the reviews of many of the critics who wrote about it when it first came out, including a couple of local writers who went out of their way to criticize the film even though they aren’t usually film critics, it would appear that for a person, especially a film critic, to let this film get to him would be a grave sin. Writer after writer has coupled Charly with The Singles Ward as examples of what is wrong with the latest wave of LDS-themed theatrical-release films. I disagree.
For those of you, who – like me – have not read the novel and – unlike me – have not yet taken the time to see the film, Charly is the story of Sam Roberts, an intense young man from Salt Lake City whose world is turned upside down when he meets Charlene “Charly” Riley, an artist from New York City who is visiting her parents and grandmother in Salt Lake. Charly likes driving fast and having fun. Sam likes fishing and keeps his life stored in his palm pilot. Sam is LDS and takes his religion very seriously. Charly doesn’t seem to take anything seriously. So, of course, they’re certain to fall in love. More than a love story though, this is a story about the impact two people have on each other. Each is a catalyst for major changes in the way the other looks at life.
In making Charly, director Adam Thomas Anderegg and producers Lance Williams, Micah Merrill and Tip Boxell did a lot of things right. The first and most obvious thing they got right was the casting of Heather Beers in the title role. Beers is a natural as Charly. She seems so comfortable in the role, you are just certain that Jack Weyland had her in mind the whole time when he was writing the novel over 20 years ago. Jeremy Elliott – one of my personal favorite LDS actors who has also had lead roles in Out of Step and Testaments of One Fold and One Shepherd – also brings a strong performance, and probably would have gotten more critical acclaim if Beers weren’t so good.
The film has a professional look and feel to it as well, belying its limited budget. Great care is taken to details. The film is beautifully shot and framed, and the script is well conceived. In fact, screenwriter Janine Whetten Gilbert won an AML Award for Screenplay Adaptation for her script. I understand that she did make a number of changes to the story – including the adding of a new character, Charly’s grandmother – which have become some of the film’s strongest points. (For those purists who absolutely hate it when a film adaptation changes a story they’ve known and loved as a novel first, it should be noted that Weyland was consulted throughout the filmmaking process and gave his seal of approval to these changes.)
Aaron Merrill has also done a nice job with the film’s music. Gratefully, money was put aside for the film to have a fully orchestral score – something that is sadly missing from many films with similar budgets. Merrill recorded much of the music with the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra – the same orchestra that recorded the soundtrack for The Other Side of Heaven – and the results were worth traveling halfway around the world to get. There are also a number of well-done pop-style songs as well.
Of course, the film also has weaknesses. I understand that most of these are actually problems left over from the source material itself, although there are occasional problems that can be attributed to the challenges of a small budget. While Jackie Winterrose-Fullerup is fun to watch as Charly’s grandmother, Diana Dunkley is wonderful as Sam’s mother and Adam Johnson portrays a surprisingly likeable version of Charly’s old (pre-baptism) boyfriend, some of the other small roles, particularly those of Charly’s parents, come off as stiff and stereotypical, especially when contrasted with Beers’ comfortable screen presence. Part of this is because there is nothing in the script to make them more than stereotypical. Charly’s father simply seems to hate any boy who dates his daughter, and her mother seems to just fall in line, also hating Sam for apparently no reason at all. After listening to the commentary, it appears that at least part of this stiffness was done on purpose in an attempt to contrast Charly’s parents with Sam’s more down-to-earth parents, but I think this was an unfortunate choice, because while the contrast is certainly evident, Charly’s parents come across as unreal cardboard characters, and I think a more natural contrast would have been more effective.
Still, that doesn’t explain the strong negative reaction from several vocal critics of the film. In the end, I think their reactions come down to the basic sentiments of the film. This is not an action movie. It’s not a comedy. It’s not really even a drama. It’s kind of a romantic comedy, but at the same time, it’s different in a lot of ways. It’s not a movie that makes you stop and think. It’s a movie that makes you stop and feel. Some people don’t like that. Some people do. It’s unfortunate that there has been such a strong negative reaction to the film in some quarters. It might lead some to do as I did with the book and assume that, in some way, this film is amateur, that the only reason it was ever made was because of its “LDS” label without ever seeing it. This is not an amateur film. Sure, it has weaknesses. Its budget is not at the level of a Hollywood studio release or even The Other Side of Heaven. But it is still, on the whole, a well-done film. At the least, it’s worth a couple of hours of your time to form your own opinion.
Probably the greatest endorsement the film can receive came from Jack Weyland himself, when he reportedly indicated that he thought the movie was better than the book. That would be a rarity indeed, which leaves me wondering if I ought to go read the book after all. I think I’ll chance it.
The DVD comes with an impressive set of special features – probably the best special features of any LDS-themed film DVD release to date – including two commentary tracks with comments from a number of cast and crew members. Even Aaron Merrill, the composer, gets involved, which is a rarity for any DVD. Other features include “The Making of Charly” documentary, deleted scenes, trailers, and excerpts from the music soundtrack.