News Column

Go Arts: Tacoma filmmaker goes deep into teen angst, Christian intensity with "Bible Quiz" at Tacoma Film Festival

October 5, 2013

YellowBrix

Oct. 05--It isn't often that a film about Tacoma teens, made by a Tacoma-born filmmaker, wins a Slamdance award and makes it big on the festival circuit. But "Bible Quiz," by Nicole Teeny about a quizzing team from Life Center church and screening last night at the Tacoma Film Festival, deserves the accolades -- despite some extremely gritty filming techniques.

In a venue brand-new for the eight-year-old festival -- Tacoma Community College -- and to an audience largely made up of Life Center members and friends, "Bible Quiz" showed on the big screen just why Teeny has gotten media praise from the Huffington Post to the Hollywood Reporter and beyond. The 80-minute film is technically a documentary, but using dramatic feature treatment and the eternal theme of unrequited love Teeny straddles genre boundaries as easily as she navigates the tricky path of describing a slightly fanatical religious sub-group without judgement.

"Bible Quiz" is both the story of something only a fraction of the population can relate to -- teenagers who memorize entire books of the Bible in order to compete with each other on a national scale -- with something everyone can relate to -- love, identity and belonging. Heading up the Life Center quiz team is JP O'Connor, the confident, smart heart-throb (if you like clueless na ve Christian guys) whose only ambition is to win; supporting him in second chair is the gawky-but-lovable Mikayla Irl, for whom the quiz team represents a family to replace her own dysfunctional one, plus the chance to win JP's heart. Along the way Teeny introduces a smorgasbord of characters that could each be taken out of a sit-com drama: the enthusiastic coach, the domineering, Christ-loving mom (JP's), the absent alcoholic mom (Mikayla's), the supporting pastor, the hair-flipping cheerleader types. Teeny's definitely in the right place at the right time, filming the Life Center team as they make it all the way to the nationals -- but with the kind of extremely dull visuals that squeaky-clean Christian teens and quizzes in conference rooms offer, this could easily have been a film to put you to sleep.

Instead, Teeny jolts you awake, literally, with a "Blair Witch Project" camera technique that eschews tripod stability (except for the interviews) and follows the team onto the bus, into their rooms and tournaments and lives with the kind of jerky, quick-whip panning that actually gives the viewer the unique self-obsessed uncertainty that only teenagers have.

Teeny also captures, with an observant eye, key torque points in literal Christianity: the scene where the Life Center kids confront a savvy, atheistic busker at the Pike Place Market and are ironically lost for words; the unbelievably ridiculous naivety of the giggling teen who thinks holding hands with a boy compromises her "hand-ginity"; the scene where Mikayla wonders whether such obsession with rules and words takes the focus away from Christianity's basis of love. In all of this Teeny is both truthful and astonishingly non-judgemental.

Yes, the audio is unbalanced, and so unclear that you need the subtitles. Yes, you sometimes wonder if Teeny's actually wearing a hidden lapel camera, rather than out in the open. And there are other flaws -- a musical soundtrack of marimbas and harpsichord that's repetitive in the extreme; Mikayla's unfortunate tendency to act (awkwardly) for the camera.

But in the end you're rooting for these kids, and after the breathtaking tension of the tournaments, the wisdom and redemption (if not happiness) in the final scenes is all the more captivating.

Best of all, the Tacoma Film Festival screening featured not just Teeny but JP, Mikayla, Coach Nelson and Chris Teeny (Nicole's brother, and another quizzer) up on stage for the Q&A. (Also present was TFF director Laura Marshall, interestingly a former quizzer herself.) Five years older and wiser, they gave some beautifully honest answers to the questions raised by the film, and offered an even more meta experience for an audience that had already been taken on a fantastic, heart-opening journey.

The Tacoma Film Festival continues through Thursday Oct. 10 at various venues throughout Tacoma; schedule at tacomafilmfestival.com.

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568 rosemary.ponnekanti@thenewstribune.com

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(c)2013 The News Tribune (Tacoma, Wash.)

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