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Tribeca Review: ‘A Courtship’ Is Christian Matchmaking Gone Awry

Tribeca Review: 'A Courtship' Is Christian Matchmaking Gone Awry

Dating in 2015 can feel like a minefield. What’s already the most complex of human interactions has been made murkier by social and sexual mores that are constantly in flux, ravaged by changes in technology that impact both the ways in which we meet people and the very meaning of human connection. But as complicated as modern romance may be, what’s the alternative?

For conservative Christians, there is one. It’s called Christian Courtship, and it exists somewhere on the continuum between matchmaking and blind dating. This is the focus of Amy Kohn’s documentary “A Courtship,” which follows the trials and tribulations of 33-year-old Kelly, who has relinquished agency over her love and sex life to her scrutinizing “spiritual parents” and the will of God. But rather than getting lost in technicalities, Kohn’s documentary manages to humanize, evolving into a moving portrait of one woman’s belief system and the relatable wounds that lie beneath it.

But despite what turns out to be a compelling story, “A Courtship” initially struggles to hit its stride. The film’s success hinges on our ability to invest in Kelly as a human being, and Kohn devotes too much of the first act to setting up the world. Time she should have spent ingratiating us to Kelly is spent introducing us to conservative values. In a scene that comes far too early in the film, Kelly’s spiritual parents are shown indoctrinating their young children with the virtue of chastity. This is damaging, as it invites us to impose judgment on subjects who are still two-dimensional. We’re asked to take a veritable leap of faith. Thankfully, it pays off—the film complicates its subject matter (lest it become “Bridget Jones Diary” meets “Jesus Camp”).
“We don’t want our children to have to experience the pain of divorce,” explains Kelly’s spiritual father, Ron, under whose roof Kelly will live until she finds a husband. “That’s why we’ve developed the Courtship process. It’s instead of having a coin tossed when two people say ‘I do.'”

Kohn spends the rest of the film questioning this assertion through Kelly’s experience. Because Kelly’s biological parents disapprove of Courtship, Kelly has endowed the very religious Ron and his wife with the responsibility of vetting her romantic prospects. Ron weeds out unworthy candidates by cross-examining them on everything from their political perspective (“How do you feel about Obama and Israel?”) to their religious tenacity. As Ron’s wife describes it, “We’re guarding the gate; we’re not going to let a wolf or a lion come in.” 

One lucky suitor meets Ron’s criteria. Ross, a homeschooled and deeply religious young man with a solid sense of self and a pleasant disposition, agrees to the Courtship terms. Their first date is a family dinner, and Kelly is smitten. Their second date, a family outing to a religious dance performance at Church, is equally as promising. But inevitably differences arise. In an online conversation, Kelly and Ross debate a dissenting theological viewpoint. Kelly, ever-hopeful, is optimistic that the differences can be bridged. Ross, however, isn’t so sure. 

Kohn has some difficulty navigating the thin margins of her film’s style. Particularly at the beginning, the documentary veers dangerously close to the made-for-TV format of a reality show. The cinematography, uneven and plain, serves a purely functional purpose; it’s a missed opportunity to develop the film’s voice and further its themes. Too-playful music also undermines the film’s credibility, detracting from some poignant moments and forcing instances of humor. But if you can forgive “A Courtship” for its aesthetic nonchalance, there’s much to be gained from the substance of Kohn’s directorial debut. 

At the root of any elaborate belief system is human vulnerability, and Kohn’s documentary succeeds when it lays bare its subjects’ conflicted inner lives. Even as Kelly espouses conservative religious values and Courtship, it becomes clear that this is a reaction to deep wounds that originated with her parents’ messy divorce and festered as she pursued dating. A visit to Kelly’s biological mother and stepfather results in an emotional discussion about Kelly’s choices. In defending her decision to participate in Courtship, Kelly tells her mother, “I’m not interested in being someone’s ex-girlfriend. I’m interested in being someone’s wife. If I don’t have to get my emotions involved, then it’s an easier decision.” 

In the end, nothing can inoculate Kelly from the pain of rejection. She’s plagued with the age-old slew of questions—Why can’t we make it work? What was the point of spending all this time together? What went wrong?—that devolve into a serious destruction of ego. “Every woman wants to know, am I beautiful?” Kelly admits. “Am I lovable? Could a man get to know me deeply and want to keep me?” Ron, for his part, reveals that the near-dissolution of his marriage is at the root of his involvement in Courtship. “My wife and I were never instructed on how to find a good mate,” he explains. “We went through a lot of pain that we didn’t have to go through.” With “A Courtship,” Kohn reminds us that that pain is as necessary as it is ineluctable. It’s the experience of being human.

Grade: B

“A Courtship” premiered at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival and is currently seeking distribution.

READ MORE: 12 Must-See Films at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival

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