A Courtship, which debuts at the Tribeca Film Festival this week, documents an Evangelical alternative to modern dating: Instead of relying on OkCupid’s matchmaking algorithms, women and men entrust God to find them an eligible spouse.
We meet the Wright family in their nondescript hometown outside Grand Rapids, Michigan, where Ron Wright runs an educational website promoting Christian courtship, BeforetheKiss.com.
When he isn’t working as a snowplow dispatcher, Ron and his wife, Dawn, proselytize courtship to other Christians.
Dawn homeschools their two daughters, aged 11 and 9, who are taught that secular dating is forbidden under Christian courtship.
They also learn that marriages can only be happy and successful when arranged by God (and vetted by the family patriarch), and that kissing and hand-holding are “treasures” to be saved for marriage.
“The stuff you’re doing now matters to your husband,” Dawn tells her 9-year-old daughter Annika, a not-so-subtle reminder that God, like Santa Claus, is always watching.
And if God doesn’t like what He sees, He may not bless her with a kind and loving husband.
Both girls keep working notebooks about courtship and marriage. Annika narrates hers like a storybook, showing scribbled drawings of “me and my husband courting, me and my husband getting married, me and my husband on our honeymoon.”
Her older sister, Savannah, fantasizes about a Civil War-themed wedding, with her future husband in a Confederate uniform.
“When you are born a girl, it doesn’t matter whether you give her all the guns and G.I. Joes in the world, she’s still going to dream about her wedding day,” Dawn says in the film. “We have the hormones. We have the makeup. It’s just who we are.”
This kind of ideology is alien to many Americans who aren’t religious or socially conservative, let alone to the progressive, largely secular demographic of New Yorkers who attend the Tribeca Film Festival every year.
Christian conservatives like the Wrights are often written off as crazy, uneducated hicks by educated, white, upper-middle-class urbanites, who are much more tolerant of other orthodox religions.
But director and producer Amy Kohn has faith in her New York audience. “I think they love to see worlds they haven’t seen before,” she says, though she acknowledges the pitbull mentality on both sides of the political spectrum.
But in New York, political and religious conservatives aren’t just outnumbered; they’re anathema.
“It’s so easy to judge someone. It’s so easy to read something in the paper and say, ‘I don’t like you or I don’t understand you because you believe this.’ I kind of wanted to create this space where there would be different reactions among people who wouldn’t otherwise interact,” says Kohn.
When Kohn set out to make A Courtship, her first feature film, she was determined not to exploit the Wrights and their religion by underscoring their position on the fringes of society, in the vein of reality shows like TLC’s 19 and Counting and Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.
Instead, Kohn focused on appealing to viewers—both religious and secular—through universal emotions and experiences.
“Religion is divisive, but everyone relates to romance and looking for someone,” she says. “And for people in the dating scene, they might fantasize about someone presenting them with ‘the one.’ I know I did!”
In the film those experiences are mined through Kelly Boggas, the Wright’s former babysitter and “spiritual daughter,” who has been living with the family for seven years and hopes to find her husband through courtship.
At 33, Kelly has already given away her first kiss (she grew up in a secular family and found God during her sophomore year of college, a year after her parents split up). But she’d give anything to be like the Wright girls, who will save theirs for the altar.
Kelly disliked dating in her teens and was even more wary of secular relationships after her parents’ marriage collapsed.
“During this time I thought a lot about marriage and recognizing a pattern among people I grew up with, which was to date and have fun and get divorced if your marriage didn’t work out as planned,” Kelly tells me on the phone. “I remember thinking I didn’t want that. I wanted my marriage to be meaningful and set an example for other people in the community.”
Courtship gives her a sense of security.
As Kelly’s spiritual father, Ron has made it his duty to oversee her courtship.
He goes on dates for her and interviews potential partners, asking pointed questions about their religious and political views: “Do you ever watch Glenn Beck? Would you be comfortable with a homosexual elder that wasn’t practicing?”
The film follows Kelly’s courtship with a young man named Ross, who, like the Wrights’ daughters, was homeschooled and raised to find a wife through courtship.
The Wrights invite Ross over for family dinners; they accompany him and Kelly, who teaches ballet, to a local production of The Nutcracker.
Ross is shy and polite, tall and lanky in his ill-fitting jeans and sweater vests. He is a talented oboist and—perhaps as a result of this hobby—has perennially chapped lips.
High school is unkind to kids like Ross (one imagines him being ruthlessly bullied by his male peers and pitied by girls). His chin is mottled with acne and his voice frequently cracks during conversation.
Kelly is more poised, but being “popular” is certainly not a priority for her.
She doesn’t seem to have many friends her age, nor does she socialize with anyone outside of the Wrights’ insular Christian community. She also seems younger than 33, and not just because she is so pure and good.
Her bedroom looks like that of a 13-year-old girl: the bed covered with stuffed animals and a quilt printed with pictures of her when she was much younger. On her bedside table are two copies of the Bible and Michelle and Jim Bob Duggar’s A Love that Multiplies.
When Kelly meets Ross, all she cares about—and all Ron cares about, really—is that he’s a sweet kid and a good Christian.
After a few meetings, Ron has a premonition that God has plans for Ross and Kelly to marry. Dawn thinks the two have palpable chemistry.
But it’s hard for the rest of us to read between the lines of their banal, sterile conversation and chaperoned interactions.
Their text messages consist only of formalities: “Looking forward to seeing you this Saturday!” “Looking forward to seeing you too!”
Meanwhile, the film doesn’t give us Ross’s perspective. So while Kelly thinks their courtship is progressing, we wonder if Ross feels the same, especially when they discover their opposing theological views on predestination.
They hash things out in lengthy Facebook messages, and Kelly thinks they end this exchange more or less on the same page.
But Ross quietly demurs, cancels dates, and ultimately cuts off their courtship—through Ron, of course.
While some viewers may be surprised that they cared about this unusual relationship at all, most will likely be frustrated that they cared so little.
In that sense, A Courtship fails to emotionally manipulate its viewers. And Kohn, careful not to exploit the Wrights, occasionally fetishizes them and their beliefs instead.
But the film succeeds in other areas: We are left thinking Kelly is deserving of a husband, and wondering why, exactly, she has failed to find one over the years despite Ron’s help. Or is it because of him that she hasn’t met anyone?
“We will keep you as long as we need to,” Ron reassures Kelly after delivering the news that she and Ross won’t see each other anymore. Dawn adds less reassuringly: “When you moved in, I realized that you might never get married.”
Rejection is another universal experience, and like many of us, Kelly wonders what went wrong. She mourns her would-be relationship with Ross. But she doesn’t totally lose faith.
“I’ve found so much more in the Lord than I’ve ever found in a boyfriend relationship,” she says through tears at the end of the film. “I can’t imagine those needs being met any other way.”
Today, three years after the film was made, Kelly still lives with the Wrights, and Ron is still keeping an eye open for her husband. But he hasn’t overseen any courtships since Ross.
Kelly doesn’t mind that she has no autonomy when it comes to her romantic life.
“It removes some of the burden to know that someone else is looking out for me,” she tells me.
Does she ever imagine things working out differently with Ross were it not for courtship?
“I’m sure it would have turned out differently if I didn’t have the Wrights’ input, but I don’t think it could have been handled better,” Kelly says.
She was happy that she “guarded her heart” and didn’t get too emotionally invested in the idea of a future with Ross. Her disappointment that things didn’t work out was nothing compared to what she suffered in secular relationships.
For many of us, heartbreak almost always comes with personal revelations. We learn from it and are stronger because of it. One wonders whether courtship has stunted Kelly’s emotional growth over the years.
But it’s not something that preoccupies Kelly. She’s in a better place, having been spared emotional pain during her courtship with Ross.
“It’s not strange now when I see him because we were never anything more than friends,” she says. “The principles of courtship and guarding your heart during the process—they really do work.”
A Courtship plays on Saturday at 2:30 p.m., Sunday at 6 p.m., Tuesday, 4/21, at 5:30 p.m., and Wednesday, 4/22, at 3 p.m. Screening details here.