RiverRun 2018: YOUTHMIN

A Self Aware Love Letter To A Ridiculous Profession

The RiverRun International Film Festival is a regional event based in Winston-Salem, NC and is one of the premier film festivals in the southeastern United States. The 20th annual RiverRun will be held April 19–29, 2018.

As a former youth minister of 8 years (and a film critic of 15 years and counting), there’s no question that I’m the exact target audience for this Office-style mockumentary of the unique world of modern American youth ministry. I’m uniquely qualified, then, to say that this film gets it, and accurately nails this bizarre segment of Christendom.

It’s apparent that YouthMin was pulled off on an extremely limited budget and really doesn’t have much of a cinematic quality to it. Becoming a part of the long tradition of casting actors who are clearly no longer teenagers to play teens doesn’t necessarily help the film either, especially since many of the actors aren’t especially strong. But look past these shortcomings and there’s a heart here.

What stands out in YouthMin is the script and the tone. Nailing a sort of cynical and simultaneously heartfelt ode to an absolutely ridiculous profession and subculture, YouthMin appropriately skewers the entire model of youth ministry while simultaneously including a fair amount of character growth in its simple structure.

Written by Arielle Cimino, Christopher O’Connell, and Jeff Ryan (and directed by Cimino and Ryan), the screenplay has overzealous youth pastor David (Ryan) taking his small group of 6 students to Summer Bible Camp along with a new pregnant (and unmarried) co-worker foisted upon David at the last minute by his pastor (Tori Hines as Rachel, the heart of the film). Camp hijinks ensue, such as over competitive games, a Bible trivia competition, and a talent show.

While not brilliant, the script really does work. Introducing us to a small group of six teens and two youth leaders, there are just enough characters to connect with as a viewer and also just enough to skewer many of the different “types” of youth group student you’re likely to find in every church. There are the sheltered, conservatively dressed suck ups, the unfiltered goth-like kids, the dating couple, and that one kid that just literally never talks. Having this group head off to bible camp gives the story a clear arc and allows these characters a little time to not just be the representation of their particular stereotype, but to learn and grow and feature in hilarious set pieces.

The highlight comedic bits for me include any time David teaches a lesson to his students, revealing he’s little more than a child in an adult’s body. I was there once too, David. There’s a hilarious Bible trivia discussion where the goth girl references a Bible character who “drops his load” on the ground, which angers God so He smites him. David refuses to acknowledge this is in the bible and the book nerd kid finds it right in there in the Good Book! Probably the funniest bit is when David believes he’s witnessed a homosexual act being performed by one of his most sheltered students. David experiences his own crisis trying to figure out how to “handle” his “first gay student” and the ensuing conversation between the student (who has no understanding of what a blow job even is, and is just swept up in a huge misunderstanding), David, and Rachel, had me absolutely chuckling. It’s a kind of “who’s on first” discussion between a child, a man-child, and Rachel as a real adult trying to navigate both of these guys’ crises. It’s a hilarious sequence, and one of a small handful that make YouthMin an overall recommend for a fairly limited audience of people who will feel at home in its world.

And I’m Out.

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