Nicole Teeny's first feature-length documentary unveils a little-known subculture, one that combines the Good Book with good old-fashioned competitiveness. But the National Bible Quiz Championship, with its teams of Scripture-spouting teens, isn't the main event in "Bible Quiz." A smart, funny and disarming 17-year-old girl is the heart of this low-key charmer of a coming-of-age story.
The intimate film, a prize winner at the Slamdance Film Festival, revolves around the experience of Mikayla Irle, a tomboyish 12th-grader with family troubles who finds a sense of belonging on a Bible Quiz team in Tacoma, Wash. As captured by Teeny's camera, the competition is a form of academic achievement in the American educational tradition: memorization and regurgitation.
Lanky team captain JP O'Connor, a star on the circuit, is Mikayla's inspiration and also the object of her first feelings of love, though it takes her a while to acknowledge this — to the camera, not JP, yet still no easy thing in an atmosphere of religious gospel and premarital abstinence. But Mikayla increasingly questions rigid theology. She's curious about the world. While other girls proselytize to a nonbelieving street musician, she puts a dollar in his guitar case.
The director, who grew up in the evangelical church (her brother, JP's best friend, appears in the film), treats sincere faith with respect, showing JP and Mikayla each grappling to reconcile the craving for victory with biblical lessons in humility. Reconciling their conflicting attitudes toward gender roles and sexuality proves trickier. Part of the unpredictable pleasure of "Bible Quiz" is its unanswered questions.
MPAA rating: None
Running time: 1 hour, 16 minutes.
Playing: At the Downtown Independent, Los Angeles.