Utah filmmaker T.C. Christensen’s latest dive into Latter-day Saint history, “The Fighting Preacher,” charms by focusing on a human story of a missionary family pushing back against prejudice with kindness and patience.
It’s 1915, and former pro boxer Willard Bean (David McConnell) and his young wife, Rebecca (Cassidy Hubert), are given an assignment by the leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The calling: Take up residence in the farm that was the home of Joseph Smith, the church’s founder, in Palmyra, N.Y.
The town drove out the Mormons some 85 years earlier, but the church has bought back the farm and intends to reestablish a Latter-day Saint community in New York. Church leaders also task Willard with negotiating the purchase of Hill Cumorah, the spot of land where Smith said he found the golden plates on which he read the Book of Mormon.
On the couple’s first night at the farmhouse, a group of muscular townsfolk deliver the message that Mormons are still not welcome in Palmyra. “Go back to where you came from” (a phrase making a comeback in the news these days) becomes a common refrain as the Beans walk through town.
Willard’s anger causes him to consider using his fists. Sometimes he stops himself, but other times, he can’t resist landing a punch or two on folks who harass or attack the family. Rebecca counsels Willard to turn the other cheek, and must do so herself when she’s rejected in her search to find a midwife for the impending birth of her child.
The storyline moves ahead six years, and the child, Palmyra (played by Scarlett Hazen) is a 6-year-old on her first day of school — and facing taunts from classmates and icy dismissal from the teacher (Carrie Wrigley). Rebecca, heartbroken when her daughter comes home crying, becomes more determined to break down her neighbors’ resistance. First she suggests Willard take on all comers in the boxing ring, and later advises a campaign of kindness.
Christensen, who wrote and directed, infuses a gentle humor to the Beans’ story, capturing Willard’s good-natured sarcasm — saying “thanks for the welcome” to men who greet him with shotguns, for example — and a streak of goofiness. (A scene where Willard slowly catches onto Rebecca’s hints that she’s pregnant is a small delight.)
The deeply faithful will appreciate the occasional name-dropping, like when a young missionary visiting the Beans introduces himself as Gordon Hinckley, who would decades later become the church’s president. Christensen also populates the supporting cast with the Beans’ real-life descendants, and filmed some scenes in the Palmyra area. (Most of the movie was filmed in Utah, largely at This Is the Place Heritage Park.)
McConnell is solid as Bean, bringing a self-effacing charm that will remind viewers of Jimmy Stewart or Chris Evans. The discovery here is Hubert, who in her acting debut turns what could have been a meek helpmate into the story’s quietly forceful moral center.
Christensen has explored early history of the church before, with pioneer tales like “17 Miracles” and “Ephraim’s Rescue,” but here his focus is not on great accomplishments but small ones. The big “event” of the story, when the ex-boxer Willard takes on all comers in the ring, is nicely realized with plenty of humor — but it’s ultimately a backward step in the Beans’ spiritual journey. What wins over the folks in Palmyra isn’t the gloved fist of a fighter, but the outstretched hand of a neighbor.
‘The Fighting Preacher’
An earnest and charming story about a Latter-day Saint family working to overcome prejudice in the New York home of Joseph Smith.
Where • Utah theaters
When • Opens Wednesday, July 24
Rated • PG for thematic elements and some action.
Running time • 101 minutes