Sunday, May 19, 2013

In Which I Watch Christian Kids' Videos

The Butter Cream Gang (1992)
Director: Bruce Neibaur
Rating: ??? / 10
Seen Via: Feature Films for Families VHS

As I mentioned before, living in the southern U.S. means that every time I browse thrift store video shelves, I find at least a handful of Christian kids' movies. Most look boring or dreadful to me, so I can pass them by without a second thought. The exceptions are films released by Feature Films for Families (hereafter FFFF). FFFF is an ambiguously Christian distribution company that specializes in films centered around "traditional values." While they firmly deny any connection to a specific religion, they're located in Utah, which is also where many of their independently-produced films take place, so draw your own conclusions. In addition to their original films, they also edit down other kids' films and remove questionable content. Totally necessary for stuff like the septic tank that is the uncut edition of Space Camp.

Most of the FFFF films are effectively feature-length after school specials with some added preachiness stirred in. I have a deeply weird fascination with the world these films present, where idyllic middle class families free from material concerns struggle with lofty moral quandaries. Despite the fact that these films grapple with problems that purportedly prepare children for life in the secular world of adulthood, there's a squeaky-clean quality to the dilemmas. They're too polished. Too abstract. They're also usually set in creepily perfect towns, like something you'd find in a TV commercial. Watching these movies is almost like watching a dystopian science fiction film set in a flawless society. One of those films where you're just waiting for the final reveal in which cannibalism or slavery or some other abomination underlies the whole pristine mess - only here, the reveal never comes.

No FFFF film exemplifies these qualities more than The Buttercream Gang, which is centered around a "gang" of middle-schoolers who take it upon themselves to be the official neighborhood do-gooders. They help out by doing things like painting picket fences or assisting the Widow Jenkins when she falls in her home and can't get up. It's set in a picture perfect whitewashed town in Utah where butterflies soar majestically in soft-focus over flowers and churches, and the baseball team's coach is also the pastor of the local church.

Every establishing shot looks like this.
Children dressed in primary colored t-shirts tucked into jean shorts with rolled-up cuffs jump rope, ride bikes, and get along just so gee golly well. Never fear though, there is some conflict, and in this film it comes in the form of a Buttercreamer (yes, they call themselves that) named Pete who has to move to Chicago to be a role model for his younger cousins. While in the big city, he becomes involved in a gang and is eventually sent back to Utah. Having been exposed to city life, he now becomes a full-blown misfit, the likes of which nobody is prepared to handle. As he spraypaints, vandalizes, and steals his way across the little town, his old friend Scott wonders what he can do to win Pete back from the Dark Side.

"I know you're not blond, Pete, but God still loves you."
I totally identified with Pete as he tried desperately to misbehave and wreck this too-good-to-be true town. Rural Utah must have seemed torturous to him after he'd been exposed to the vice and corruption of the big city. He's the only character in the movie who looks for cracks in the facade, and finding none, becomes increasingly insane. How awful must it feel to be surrounded by perfect people all of the time? Every insecurity and flaw grossly magnified in comparison, your doubts mocked by the selfless smiling faces who repair every small thing you break - no wonder he eventually flips his shit, screaming "I WANT YOU TO HATE ME" at the placid general store owner who has just volunteered to give him the entire contents of the cash register so that Pete won't have to steal it from him.

If you think this movie is primarily about gangs or crime, you're wrong. This movie is about Unconditional Love, which you know because it's mentioned no fewer than three times on the box. It's hard to convey just how ceaselessly, relentlessly earnest this movie is, and how little subtlety it possesses. This is the kind of movie that has no qualms about literally inserting a sermon to drive home the point it has to make, which ultimately seems to be that allowing yourself to be victimized by bad people will cause them to become good people.

Like Pete, I felt beaten into submission by the sentimentality and overbearing goodness of this film. I fell victim to some sort of weird Stockholm syndrome induced by swells of strings and solemn monologues on forgiveness delivered by blond Christian kids. Maybe it was the TWO montages of Goofus and Gallant sequences featuring Pete and Scott, one vandalizing and the other doing good deeds. All of this over an original song about loving your neighbor. It's too much, I can't take it. You win. I love everyone!

The Good:

I can't say this is a bad movie. While I was flabbergasted at many things throughout, I actually enjoyed it. I laughed, I cried, I wanted the movie to hate me, and it refused.

The Bad:

Did we need two music montages? Really, guys?

...the Hell?

This movie actually adopts sort of a pro-bullying stance, and tells kids that you should let someone steal your bike, beat you bloody, screw with your job, and generally make your life a living hell so that they'll eventually turn over a new leaf.

Also, this is what gangs look like:


The Verdict:

A strange, baffling, overly sentimental after-school special, interesting primarily because of how far its reality diverges from my own. A unique viewing experience, even among FFFF films. You will either feel compelled to slash your wrists in uncomprehending madness or start up your own Buttercream gang.

2 comments:

  1. I saw two copies of this at the antique store today. Your review is great, but I just couldn't bring myself to buy a copy. lol

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    Replies
    1. Thanks, Ryan! That was probably a good move on your part, although if you ever want to delve into FFFF I'd say this makes a great entry point.

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