‘Trek’ is a ‘by Mormons, for Mormons’ humorous spin on pioneer re-enactments — and an attempt at making a classic teen movie

YouTube “influencers” in Utah try pushing handcarts before seeing the movie.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rebecca Beach gets into the pioneer spirit along with her husband Michael, center, as they get ready to participate in a hand cart re-enactment at This Is The Place Heritage Park. In anticipation of the movie "Trek: The Movie," a comedy about teens on a re-enactment trip, YouTube vloggers like the Beach family who post under the name The Beach House were invited to post about their experience.

When he was 15, Davey Orgill was one of the thousands of Mormon teens who went on trek — but he didn’t do well.

“I wasn’t a very good kid on it,” Orgill, one of the creators of the YouTube family vlog “April & Davey,” said at a promotional event for “Trek,” a Utah-made movie opening Friday about teens re-enacting the struggles of 19th-century Mormon pioneers pushing handcarts across the prairies to the Salt Lake Valley.

“I think I was immature,” Orgill said. “Everything was there for me to have a good positive experience.”

That experience — finding a shared sense of purpose to overcome hardships and building empathy with their pioneer forebears — is at the heart of “Trek,” a comedy-drama that director Alan Peterson was at first reluctant to make.

“I didn’t want to make a ‘Mormon movie,’ ” said Peterson, whose past films have mostly been right-leaning political documentaries.

It was only when his teen son went on trek that Peterson thought, “This would make a great movie. … It wasn’t the stories, it was the attitude. He’d had a spiritual experience of some kind.”

Thus began Peterson’s five-year journey to make “Trek,” but the script’s origins are even older.

Screenwriter David Howard, best known for co-writing the 1999 science-fiction comedy “GalaxyQuest,” said the seed started 15 years ago, when three of his filmmaking friends went camping and got talking about the movies of John Hughes, classic teen comedies like “Sixteen Candles” and “Pretty in Pink.”

“Those movies really nailed the zeitgeist,” Howard said. “The question was, ‘Is there a way to do a Mormon movie that would feel that way?’ ”

The friends hit on the idea of a movie about trek that would have lots of comedy, but also some heart.

Howard and his friend Jon Enos hammered out their first script soon after, telling the story of one teen, Tom (played by Austin R. Grant), struggling with his faith the year after the death of his best friend. Tom reluctantly goes along on a trek experience, populated with a motley collection of teens to provide comical, dramatic and chastely romantic subplots.

(Courtesy Excel Entertainment) Austin R. Grant plays Tom, a Mormon teen who reluctantly joins a pioneer re-enactment journey, in the comedy "Trek," opening in Utah theaters April 6.

“We wanted it to feel like an ensemble,” Howard said. The aim was to capture “the craziness and fun that can happen on trek. The culture is so ripe for satire. We had as much fun with the adults as we did with the kids.”

Over the years, Howard has had to rewrite the script to update the cultural references. For example, Tom says that he gave up binge-watching “The Walking Dead” to go on trek. “Before, he was going to do a Jackie Chan marathon,” Howard said. “We went back and tweaked the language a lot. I have kids who are in their teens and early 20s. They are my research.”

Peterson said he was impressed with how the script balanced comedy with the serious elements of Tom’s faith crisis.

“The more spiritual elements are not heavy-handed,” Peterson said. “There’s not a baptism or a mission call. … We don’t give them the answers.”

And though the film includes one non-Mormon character, Anna (Stefania Barr), along for the handcart journey, Peterson said they didn’t work too hard “to open it up outside the Jell-O belt. … It’s by Mormons, for Mormons primarily. I didn’t have visions of it being a crossover movie.”

The movie was shot in 16 production days, a quick turnaround for any feature film, with a Utah-grown cast and crew deployed last summer at locations in Tooele, Davis, Morgan and Grand counties.

Before the movie’s premiere, distributors staged an event for Mormon-based online “influencers,” having them take their families on an abbreviated 1-mile handcart trek around This Is the Place Heritage Park. It was a fair approximation of what the pioneers did, if the pioneers stopped every so often to take charcoal-sketch selfies.

“It’s a physical reminder that you can do hard things,” said Tara Parker, a Spanish Fork mom who writes the family blog Keep Moving Forward With Me. “I wonder if I could have done the real trek. That was only a mile, and our kids were saying, ‘Are we there yet?’ ”

Parker and her husband, John, took their four kids on the mini-trek, which reminded John of his teen trek experience. He said going on trek helped him “have a connection with your ancestors who have done it, and understand what they went through.”

After the handcart push and a barbecue dinner, the bloggers and vloggers got an early look at “Trek.” On their YouTube feeds, they gave the movie high marks.

Josh Dyches, co-star of the YouTube feed “Dyches Fam,” said in a video from the event that “it’s one of those good-feeling movies that the world needs more of.”

April Orgill, of “April & Davey,” said the movie “made me laugh a lot. It did bring it back in the end and made me cry,” while her husband, Davey, who had the bad experience on his teen trek, said, “It’s good values and is made to put goodness into the world.”

‘Trek’ review<br>★★1/2<br>Where • Theaters across Utah.<br>When • Opens Friday, April 6.<br>Rating • PG for thematic elements, some suggestive material, peril, an injury image and language.<br>Running time • 105 minutes.<br>Like most church activities, how much one gets out of the LDS-themed comedy-drama “Trek” depends on what one brings to it. The jokes about Mormon culture and the quick-sketch depictions of teens and adults on a pioneer re-enactment trek (“Mormon cosplay,” as one character calls it) will draw knowing chuckles and nods of recognition from the LDS target audience. The main story — about a teen, Tom (Austin R. Grant), reluctantly going on trek while questioning his faith after a friend’s untimely death — is powerful enough to carry the film’s message over the occasional dry spots in the low-budget production. The faithful will enjoy this movie, while others likely will scratch their heads.<br>— Sean P. Means