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The group consists of several focused, committed teens engaged in a Bible Quiz league, in which dozens of teams from evangelical church groups across the nation compete to answer questions requiring the memorization of passages in the Bible. Sort of a College Bowl of the scriptures, Bible Quiz is played with hand-activated buzzers, like TV's Jeopardy. The game sessions are not a time for fun. The contestants are so keyed up during the competition that they rattle off the answers at a machine gun pace. The amount of Bible text they carry in their heads is staggering.
These kids don't appear to be from affluent families. They dress like average teens except that the girls are mostly seen in baggy pants and T-shirts, just like the boys: no short skirts or other dress code issues. None carry personal electronics. We wonder if they have Facebook accounts, follow TV shows or go to the movies... but it certainly looks like the answer is No. Are any hooked on materialistic or consumer attractions? Superhero comics? Just how much contact with the corrupt mainstream culture do they have? Bible Quiz doesn't let us know. This bunch behaves as if they'd never been near a violent video game or a sexually charged TV show.
The focus is on Mikayla Irle, a good-natured and outwardly well-adjusted teen who is both thrilled and intimidated to hold down a top quiz slot between two good-looking boys. One of them, J.P., is a somewhat scraggly but earnest and motivated Bible brainiac, and the star player in the quiz competition. In her camera interviews, Mikayla freely admits to not being sure what she's feeling about these boys. She would like them to think that she's pretty and would die for a compliment, but romance is out of the question. They don't even touch each other.
Mikayla is also a true believer in her community's values. The adults have everything under control. There is apparently no solitary dating, only group activities, most of them chaperoned. Another girl jokes that she's not only a virgin, she's also a hand-holding virgin and a foot-touching virgin. Mikayla says that holding hands with a boy is not even a desirable goal, but the fact that she's talking about it tells another story. Bible Quiz doesn't spell out the house rules but that part of the message comes through strongly enough. One grim bit of scripture recited by all is something about carnal sin and death. Raised in this way these kids are self-policing. They show no outward signs of undue tension or unnatural oppression.
There are some caveats. Mikayla and her friends are exceptional kids in a special competitive club. We see nothing outside the club activities. Is it safe to assume that the parochial schools they attend have at least a few teen troublemakers, rebels and backsliders? Also, this church community appears to be entirely white. There is no reference to or discussion of race, leaving that issue an open question. Away from home, we do spend a few seconds with a team of black competitors, without comment. One of their members a white Quaker, whose traditional dress makes him look more like an Orthodox Jew. The isolated cutaway almost plays like a joke. Exactly what are the larger social beliefs taught in this insulated church community? Bible Quiz shows a very narrow picture.
All we really know about Mikayla's community is that it is extremely Bible-centric. All daily routines, discussions and aspirations tend to lead right back to Subject A. We see kids and adults reading together. A mother opines that memorizing the Bible will be of great benefit to the young kids, for "they'll have it when they need it later in life." The teens sometimes speak to each other in a kind of Bible-verse shorthand.
Bible Quiz has chosen some inspiring personalities to be front and center. Young J.B. talks about competing, his commitment to the Bible and his great fortune to have supportive parents. We get a quick look at Mikayla's background when she pays a visit to her mother. Her parents have split up. She describes her mother as a troubled alcoholic with "a lot of friends who give her money to get by." Mikayla must pick her way around her mother's wreck of a house before discovering a man in the bedroom and excusing herself. Seen a little later, Mikayla's father refers to his wife as a subject not often discussed. This raises more unanswered questions. Which came first, mother's alcoholism or her rejection by the Bible cult? We also question the ethics/fairness aspect of director Teeny's camera barging in on Mikayla's mother, even though she isn't shown. Hi mom, you're part of my documentary, whether you want to be or not.
We see the group competing at their home church (in Spokane, Washington), visiting Seattle and New York City and finally competing for the big prize in Wisconsin. Unless chaperones are just out of camera range, they're given free time in these exotic cities to wander on their own... as a group. Mikayla says negative things about the liquor she can smell in a fairground, and they steer clear of an open-air rock concert. They enjoy listening to a street singer but hold their ground when he tells them that their religion is a mental strait-jacket. The girls answer him with smiles and hopes that he'll find his Lord and Savior. They're exceedingly polite and respectful, while the street singer looks like a dissipated mess. Ding! Round Two goes to the churchy girls.
The final post-competition party sees Mikayla dolling herself up in makeup and a tasteful strapless dress. Her various voiceovers have by this time convinced us that she does have a strong interest in J.P., but there would seem to be no community-approved outlet for those feelings. As she earlier described J.P., Jesus comes first and the Bible Quiz second. But the docu shows us very little of what happens outside the games. Although Mikayla mentions being in other activities including sports (track & field, actually), the docu imparts the impression that the Quiz is her entire life. Many viewers of Bible Quiz will conclude that Mikayla's Bible community has made a big improvement on the way secular society raises children. In actuality, we don't see a wide enough picture to know whether they're being raised in a loving Utopia, or something far less attractive.
Director-producer Nicole Teeny filmed for a little less than a year. Her brother was a Quiz contestant and is in the film. She has her camera(s) in the right place most of the time. Her scenes never look staged, but they are highly selective in what they show. We certainly believe that the fresh-faced, self-doubting Mikayla is acting naturally. The movie's credits identify few of the kids, making us wish that Ms. Teeny would consider revisiting them ten years later, Michael Apted-style. We are given a text coda about J.B. and Mikayla, an "American Bible Graffiti" update that tells us what they're up to a couple of years later. I can see this kind of upbringing being poison to some kids, but Mikayla would seem to have come through it all with a strong personality and an independent mind.
Virgil Films' and Slamdance's DVD of Bible Quiz is a good encoding of an HD video production with few if any frills. Christopher North's lively music is an asset to the show, even if it makes its strongest statement over the end credits.
The Bible Quiz disc really needed subtitles. The original sound is not always perfectly recorded and the kids habitually talk too fast or under-articulate their words. Nobody expects to really follow those quiz answers recited at a dizzy pace, but I missed at least 20% of what was being said elsewhere, even with my ear cocked and the audio cranked. I might have misunderstood a detail or two above for not hearing a key bit of dialogue.
The entertaining Bible Quiz doesn't offer a wider look at Mikayla and J.P.'s home and school life, leaving us with many unanswered questions. Are these teens being aided or harmed by this insular culture? Do they emerge from the Bible indoctrination with a restrictive view of the world and an intolerance of other faiths and races? Or are their regimented childhoods a better alternative to the materialistic, consumer distractions we secular kids had so much difficulty navigating?
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Bible Quiz DVD
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