It's fitting that Nicole Teeny's feature documentary debut is my first proper film at Slamdance. Fitting as I knew that its focus on a group of Christian teens who compete in a hard-hitting game of memorizing and then citing Bible verses in impressive rapid-fire succession was going to be a challenge for me as someone who has had a strange relationship with Christianity (Baptized in the Presbyterian Church as an infant, my family chose to move on from that world by the time I was five). But with anything I remained open and empathetic and curious as to just what this Bible Quiz was.
Teeny hones her cameras in on seventeen year old Mikayla, a petite, sarcastic girl whose true commitment to the game is questioned throughout the film. As it were, Mikayla has other reasons for being on the team at Takoma, Washington's Life Center Church, the main one being her crush on super star player J.P. Their initial enthusiasm bubbles to the forefront of the film as they blaze through the regional, even beating their main rival Cedar Park, and on into the semi-finals., and finally it's showdown after showdown at the nationals.
The game itself can feel mind-bogglingly complicated to outsiders, though it's fairly straightforward in play, essentially being run like any academic quiz game (I'm thinking of the D.C. regional TV Show of my youth It's Academic
). The passion these kids give to the game is rather incredible to witness. Many players spout off verse after verse in rapid auctioneer fashion, nailing a whole verse within 10-5 seconds. The prep alone is at times exhausting for them. Bible Quiz as a game is more intense than Jeopardy.
For Mikayla the game and her teammates are an anchor, a compass, and a place to call home as her own family life is anything but easy. At the start of the film she finds herself living with her father after her mother becomes unavailable to provide for her due to alcoholism. As a filmmaker, Teeny lets her narrative be shaped by Mikayla, who, in all her anxieties and uncertainties of being 17, has a wisdom beyond her years. Her dry wit and ease in front of the camera provide the audience with an enduring portrait, curated and shaped by Teeny's gentle hand, but most importantly, by Mikayla herself. After all this is her story (it's worth a mention that Mikayla now has a degree in film). Her admiration for J.P. and her need for his approval gradually shifts into finding a greater confidence within herself. What's interesting to note about this is that her own awareness of self is really informed by the fact that someone is making a movie about her. She knowingly utilizes her time in front of the camera to great effect. By the end of the film, any ideas of Christianity, of God, of J.P., of the game have shifted focus to the peripheral because what we now have is a young woman coming into her own, and it's just the beginning.
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