Latter-day Saint Video Vault celebrates decades of uplifting, funny, weird, and sometimes cringe-worthy Mormon-related videos, most of which are now found on YouTube. Join Jared Jones every other Friday as he breaks down one of these classics.

Christmas decorations are largely put away, and thankfully we are getting back into a routine. Part of that is opening back up the Vault! I’m still feeling good from the glow of the holiday season, so I’m staying away from the bleakness of  60’s Saints Cinema this week. For this week’s feel-good film we turn to 1989’s What is Real.

What is Real was created for broadcast television. It was the final in a series of three films—Our Heavenly Father’s Plan and Together Forever were the others—designed to communicate that through Jesus Christ Heavenly Father has a plan for individuals and families to find peace and happiness.

As the film opens, we see Sandy on a cluttered TV production set. There are lights, director’s chairs, costumes and props everywhere. He sets up the story for us. He is a young father searching for the meaning of life. Whether the answers are real or are fake like the scenery on a stage is up for us to decide.

The actual film begins, and Sandy is gently comforting his infant daughter, Jennifer, and putting her back to sleep. He heads to bed himself and assures his wife (who as far as I can tell is unnamed for the entire film) the baby is fine. He nods off to sleep and immediately begins to dream.

Sandy stands looking through the hospital nursery with eyes full of love. We flash forward and Jennifer is playing with a ball but then runs into the street to retrieve it. Sandy screams “No!” as she is about to get hit by a car. His dream cuts back and forth between his troubled sleep and increasingly troubled dream. We see Sandy and his wife arguing with a teenage Jennifer and we hear her voice over. “I’m tired of not fitting in, I want to fit in.” We see her smoking, maybe doing drugs and getting caught in a car with a boy. She asks “Why are we even here? What is it for anyway, why should I go on living?” Sandy then sees Jennifer being rolled into the hospital after what we assume is a suicide attempt. He immediately sits upright, calls Jennifer’s name and runs to the nursery—waking up his wife in the process.

“She’s going to be gone in 20 minutes, and I don’t have the answers!” He laments to his wife. He says he doesn’t know how to help her because he doesn’t know the answers for himself. His wife understands his frustration but assures him they will figure it out as she isn’t even a month old yet. His wife heads back to bed.

Sandy breaks the fourth wall and walks out of the nursery set. He busies himself with a costume change as he connects us to the next scene. Sandy knows he needs answers, but where do you ask? How do you know when you actually find the truth? We hear sounds in a garage/shop and he talks of his father. He recalls a time when the greatest lesson he learned from his dad was when his dad didn’t know the answer. He grabs a glove and mitt to complete the look and heads into the garage.

He joins his dad in his puttering and offers to help him complete a project. As they talk, Dad realizes that Sandy is troubled. Sandy talks about how scary the world is and how current events make him wonder how long things will last before everything goes up in a puff of smoke. He doesn’t know what to do with his life in a world that is the way it is. His dad recognizes these are hard questions which often makes it even harder to find the answers. His dad assures him that he doesn’t know all the answers either, but the more important the question the more the answer needs to come from your heart. “I don’t know if its profound or naïve but it’s worked for us.”

Lighting changes and the back wall of the garage is suddenly gone revealing a rainy street. Sandy prepares us for the scene. “What do you do when your heart says one thing but your head says another?”

Sandy changes costume and then ends up meeting his girlfriend in the rain. They argue about him quitting school to become a mechanic. He said that he likes working with his hands and fixing things and is excited to start a job. His girlfriend is confused. She had a picture of where their life was headed and this wasn’t in the plan. She wonders “What about us?” The conversation takes a turn and Sandy ends up proposing. His girlfriend accepts.

We are then treated to a song interlude and relationship montage. We see images of his wife graduating from college and of Sandy working in a garage along with various other pictures of their life together.

Sandy’s wife then takes center stage. She talks of the adjustments of marriage and how they complemented and contrasted one another. Sandy was more interested in how religion could help Jennifer and them deal with life’s daily problems. She was more concerned with the eternal nature of things. They were searching for something when a friend invited them to meet with representatives from her church. I wonder which church they represented? The suspense is killing me!

Sandy’s wife walks into the scene to join Sandy with two missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Another opportunity to give Sandy’s wife a name is missed. After the Elders ask if they have any preliminary questions, Sandy asks why are they missionaries and how has sharing this message made your life better? One elder gives the analogy of playing on a piano without all the keys. The gospel helps him make music that is more full and beautiful. The other Elder shares his conversion story as a young man in Okinawa, Japan. He shares his testimony and Sandy’s wife is touched. She is relieved when baby Jennifer cries so she can take a minute to process what she was feeling. She is happy for the chance to have the missionaries in their home so they can talk about spiritual things.

Sandy, his wife and Jennifer transition from the living room to the open set. They wanted to see how the church works in the lives of families and they decide to attend a worship service. They walk into a chapel set and get settled in a pew.

A ward member we will call Brother Stache gets up to introduce the program. His family had been asked to basically run the Sacrament meeting. Their family did everything post sacrament—something not really done today. His wife and youngest daughter sang a verse of “Teach Me to Walk in the Light” and then their teenage daughter speaks. Her appearance and attitude serve as stark contrast to the rebellious Jennifer of Sandy’s dream. She outlines all the fears that Sandy had in his dream and how the gospel of Jesus Christ helps her to deal with it. She is not sad or scared because she knows in her heart there is meaning and purpose to life. She talks of reading the Bible and Book of Mormon and gaining a testimony of it.

Sandy and his wife walk out of the set and Sandy comments how seeing something once is better than hearing about it 100 times. He realized he wanted what the Stache family had. But how could he know it’s real? How could he know it is THE answer?

We cut back to a night in the nursery. He talks through all the things he has learned in church and with the missionaries. He reads the scriptures to his baby girl and talks to her about the plan of happiness. The shifting light helps us realize that he was up all night talking to his sleeping child.

“What it boils down to…is it real?” He pauses and then states rather than questions. “The restored gospel of Jesus Christ is real.”

A song begins: “The truth we all must see / has not been concealed. If we ask prayerfully / and look we will see everything testifies its real.”

As the vocals build we pull out of the nursery through an open window to reveal Sandy and Jennifer are not in a set but in a real home. The song continues with simple lyrics that speak of the beauty of the world made for the family of man. Everyone on the earth can know in their hearts that there is a plan of happiness for them. We see beautiful vistas and people of different races and creeds.

The visuals fade away—replaced by Del Parson’s Jesus the Christ—and we hear: “And when we see his face / what peace and joy we’ll feel. At the glory of him / our hearts burn within. For he testifies that his gospel is real.

Sandy concludes that the more important the questions the more the answers come from our hearts. We can know the answers in our hearts are real through prayer. “When you ask your father in heaven with all your heart the answers will come.”

The song concludes: “And no one can deny / And every soul will kneel / For with his life he testified it’s real.”

What is Real is a thoughtful film that succeeds where its sister film Together Forever failed. It’s memorable in its approach to storytelling. The different vignettes follow the same characters instead of Together Forever’s shorter stories. Moving in and out of the production’s sets is an interesting visual trick that creates a strong contrast in the end. By recognizing that these are actors in a story it somehow enhanced the actors’ sincerity of delivery for me. This device does break down a bit the more you analyze it. Are Sandy and his wife (why doesn’t she have a name?) acting when they aren’t “acting?” Who is really experiencing the conversion here? Is any of this story actually real? Maybe that’s the point. The song at the end is also effective in how it interplays with dramatic visuals.

What is Real reminds us there is power in seeking answers and asking questions. On my mission I showed this a lot in both English and Spanish. It always brought the spirit and even watching it again years later I believe that Christ himself testifies his Gospel is real.

Thoughts, Musings & Trivia

  • What is Real was broadcast during prime time on a Monday evening August and September throughout the U.S. and Canada in areas where there were mission headquarters. We can read about its release in the Ensign.
  • Members were encouraged to invite friends into their homes to watch the film.
  • At the end of the film there were two different calls to action. For outside Utah people were offered an audio recording of a gospel message. Inside Utah representatives would come and visit.
  • Our Heavenly Father’s Plan was released a year earlier in 1988, and Together Forever was released earlier in 1989.