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Gay Mormons in love

Relationships at heart of 'Latter Days'

By Andy Culpepper

Latter Days
Steve Sandvoss and Joseph Gordon-Levitt play Mormon missionaries in "Latter Days."

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LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- The filmmaker and cast behind "Latter Days" are on a mission: to get as many people as possible in to see their little film.

It's a sometime drama, sometime romantic comedy about two young men who find each other, love each other, and deal with the consequences of love's often messy aftermath. And, oh yeah: one of the men is a Mormon.

The Los Angeles Times has given "Latter Days" a positive review, and writer/director C. Jay Cox can't suppress an ear-to-ear grin.

"Those are the kind of reviews that you hope for, that you wish for, that you dream about," he beams.

If the title strikes a chord, it's not by accident. The words are an allusion to the Mormon church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Cox is an ex-Mormon and the church figures prominently in the film's plot.

"Well, it's not strictly autobiographical, but I was raised Mormon," says the screenwriter, who also penned the script for the popular Reese Witherspoon comedy, "Sweet Home Alabama."

"My family's been Mormon for five generations. I was a Mormon missionary when I was 19. And after moving to Los Angeles and coming out," he continues, "I think that I was able to experience the other side of the movie, so I did come to the movie knowing both of those characters."

Combustible mix

C. Jay Cox
Director C. Jay Cox brought personal experience to the movie.

Coming out? Yes, Cox is gay, as are the two characters to which he refers -- a young Mormon missionary coming to terms with his sexuality and a twentysomething hunk who sees him as just another number in his sexual repertoire.

"Latter Days" marks Cox's directorial debut. The movie is an ensemble effort which includes acting veterans Mary Kay Place and Jacqueline Bisset, along with Wes Ramsey and Joseph Gordon-Levitt ("Third Rock from the Sun"). Ramsey plays a hunk who finds himself falling in love with his missionary conquest (Steve Sandvoss).

If the combustible mix of religion and homosexuality almost certainly guarantees controversy, Ramsey thinks good may come of it.

"Controversy raises questions, and I think it's important for us all to be asking questions of ourselves and about our faith, about our beliefs, and our feelings emotionally, personally and spiritually in life. And if it brings attention to the film, great."

"Latter Days" proves to be the rule, not the exception. Theaters in Utah originally planning to show the film have since canceled it. Effectively, "Latter Days" finds itself banned -- and the beneficiary of more publicity.

Actor Erik Palladino -- who plays Keith, a man living with AIDS -- says the attention can only benefit the film.

"At this point, don't you get when you create controversy over a movie, it helps the movie?" he says and laughs. "It's gonna help the movie. It's not rocket science."

'I wasn't setting out to create controversy'

In the film, the Mormon missionary -- Elder Aaron, played by Steve Sandvoss -- finds himself excommunicated from the church. Playing the linchpin character in the film's plot gave Sandvoss an opportunity to experience a blurring of the lines between what is real and what is not.

First, there was Sandvoss' girlfriend. "She was taken aback," he recalls.

But there was also the note left by a fan on Sandvoss' Web site.

" 'Steve, I think you're mixed up about this,' " Sandvoss recounts. " 'It seems you're a smart guy but you've been flattered by some men, but they're more concerned with what's between your legs.' I just laughed."

"I wasn't setting out to create controversy or stir up trouble," says Cox. "I just really wanted to speak from my experience...I was just surprised during the filming of the movie just how emotionally intense some of those experiences became, not just for the actors, but for me as the director."

One such moment in the movie comes in a confrontational scene between Sandvoss' character and his Mormon mother, played by Place. The two are in the kitchen when Place clocks her son with her open palm.

"It was devastating to both of us. The look on his face, I will never forget as long as I live," she says.

If Place's character provides the power from right of center, it is Bisset's role, that of a kind-hearted restaurant owner, which provides the film's emotional ballast.

"It says that people have many colors," she considers. "The world is so diverse now and seemingly more open than it was, but there's still a long way to go. The film doesn't advocate anything. It just allows this relationship to come together."

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