Zack Little has landed the dream role. For 88 years, a small town in the foothills of Wichita, Oklahoma has been home to a yearly Easter pageant, the longest running Passion play in American history set against the bizarre backdrop of a detailed replication of the Holy Land smack dab in America’s Heartland. Drawing a local cast of hundreds, and the technical support of hundreds more, the spectacle of Wichita’s yearly tribute to the death and rebirth of Jesus Christ is a production on par with many Hollywood blockbusters. Now, Little is the star of this multi-generational effort, playing the role of a lifetime as Jesus Christ, but Zack has a secret that may call his capacity to play the King of Kings into question amongst the highly religious participants of the production.
Although Jesus Town, USA may be a true story, it’s incredibly difficult not to see the influence of mockumentary master Christopher Guest (Waiting for Guffman) in the workings of this documentary. Many of the scenes, particularly conversations between a couple of the “cast members,” are shot in a style meant to evoke a typical narrative movie, but the film is trying so hard to draw attention to the drama that you’re not sure if it’s genuinely trying something different in telling this story, or whether the method and the message go hand-in-hand.
Or maybe loosening up the talking head format of the documentary is just a good idea in order to get cynical movie goers (like myself) to see the appeal of these people and their tireless annual mission to relive the glory of Christ and his story? Religious people don’t always get portrayed in the best light at the movies. Earnestness or craziness are generally the two extreme settings that such characters are seen in, so if the filmmakers play with the tone in order to make it feel more human, then so much the better.
The point of this documentary is that Zack is worried about being ostracized and forced to leave the production because he’s a Buddhist. Yes, Jesus is a Buddhist. Or at least, the new Jesus of Wichita, Okla is. The play’s director, Alan, talks about the tremendous demand placed on his shoulders to make the right decision when casting Jesus. He doesn’t just need to find someone to meet the physical requirements of being a young man with long brown hair, but he also has to find someone who could evoke the spirit of Jesus. Alan praises Zack as someone that brings tremendous zeal to playing the part of Jesus, complimenting the young man on his warmth, humour and friendliness. If there was ever anyone who could be Jesus without being Jesus, it’s Zack, which is why it’s probably such a sucker punch for the rest of the cast as they slowly learn that Zack is more likely to quote Confucius than Corinthians.
Jesus Town is more about what connects us than divides us. Although Zack is a Buddhist, his enthusiasm for playing Jesus in the pageant is palpable, and his preparedness and dedication are something to be admired. One also appreciates the industry that is the pageant and the significant place that it holds in Wichita lore, which in the past has hosted hundreds of thousands of people on “audience hill” to watch the play unfold. Clips from a Hollywood movie shot on the copy of ancient Jerusalem reinforce just how huge this play is, and how huge it is for the group of dedicated locals that still put in on yearly. The costume designer, for instance, is a second generation member of the crew, following in the footsteps of her mother, with her own daughter also now a participant in the production.
With so much tradition at stake, the filmmakers make the viewer understand just why Zack’s own personal religious beliefs might upset the close-knit cast and crew. The first person Zack “comes out to” is a friend who looks to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps as caretaker of the Holy City, and he does not take well the news that Jesus is no longer Zack’s proverbial co-pilot. Honestly, I can’t imagine him taking the news much worse if Zack had told him he’s a serial killing cannibal. While I assumed I’d be forced to watch an old-fashioned shunning as the predictably zealot-like Middle America Christians shunned this poor guy for thinking and feeling differently, thankfully, the movie chose another path. Or rather, the people it portrays did.
Without spoiling how it turns out, let’s just say that Jesus Town does its namesake proud, by embracing the idea that no matter whom you pray to, people of good will and good intent can get along and be a community. It’s a message that’s a bit hokey and a bit obvious, but it’s a welcome, heart-warming message all the same.
On the other hand, it would have been nice if the directors pushed Zack a bit more about the reasons he chose Buddhism and the various way he practices. Throughout the movie is this undercurrent of potential alienation, and it would have been nice to have a better practical and philosophical understanding to Zack’s choice to deviate from the overwhelmingly Christian community. And while the film does try to paint much of the cast with a bit of shade, that Guffman style makes key moments feel more like Napoleon Dynamite than something real and genuine.
The flaws of Jesus Town, USA can be overlooked though, because there’s a crowd-pleasing appeal to the film, and although the directors worked overtime to make their cast seem like characters, they take no side in making the town’s Christians look like zealots, or in making Zack look like the town’s idiot. From arm chair theologians, to theater geeks, to anyone that’s ever lived in a small town known for the one big thing that they do unlike anyone else, there’s a universal appeal to this film, whether you mark the box “Christian,” “Buddhist,” or “Other.”
Jesus Town, USA is definitely a fun film, but it does sometimes stray a little bit into the absurd.