'POV' Has Vision to Focus on an Ordinary Family's Strength

In headlines and all across television is the family of Elizabeth Smart, the 14-year-old whose disappearance remains unsolved.

Day after day, this family and police face a Maginot Line of inquiring media who have made Elizabeth this season's JonBenet Ramsey. Hour after hour, cable news channels update and rehash this story, opening their hearts and lenses to another golden victim whose parents have wealth and skin color matching that of nearly all the hotshots who have dispatched these hordes to Salt Lake City.

Meanwhile, similar tragedies besetting blacks, Latinos--and all of the unwealthy--become media pit stops (when covered at all) and remain as out of vogue in some circles as sound news judgment.

High-toned novelist-journalist Dominick Dunne told CNN's Larry King the other night that he wrote about the rich because he found them more interesting than other Americans. At least he's honest. Many in the media obviously share his infatuation, forgetting or not caring that ordinary people ache just as deeply and regularly inspire us with the heroism they display when facing adversity.

On Tuesday night, for example, you'd do well to watch another Mormon family hurting in Salt Lake City.

A family not rich. A family not made famous by TV or psychoanalyzed by talk radio's knee-jerk shrinks, but one every bit as anguished as the Smarts. A family whose story is heartbreaking to view, too stunning to miss.

"This Christmas was terrible-wonderful," Kim Smith is heard saying in 1999, because "we knew it was the last one."

The last one for her husband, Steve--father of their two teenage sons and a living cadaver in much of this tender, emotional, unforgettable "POV" film by Tasha Oldham, though he's barely into middle age.

They were "a Cinderella family," says Steve's twin brother in "The Smith Family" on PBS, a description affirmed by home movies of the Smiths at play in happier days. They were also a churchgoing, fresh-scrubbed poster family for Mormonism, resolute in their commitment, devout and unswerving in their faith.

Then, the crash.

On their ninth anniversary, Steve confessed to Kim he'd had sex with men. Three years later, she tested HIV-positive. Soon after, Steve developed full-blown AIDS.

Although the odyssey on the screen is no less than tortuous--and refutes church doctrine about homosexuality and the loopy notion of it being a changeable "lifestyle"--this is much less about Mormonism and AIDS than about the Smiths as a family.

Kim: "I love this man, in spite of his weakness ... in spite of his betrayal, in spite of all these things."

As corny as that.

There is nothing trite about the Smiths, though. Nor about other themes in this year's batch of independent small films on "POV" (short for "point of view") as it launches its 15th season of showcasing lower-budget, personalized works. The best of these make up in raw storytelling virtue what they lack in elegance.

Although some are more successful than others, each offers a refreshing closeness to the pavement that rarely exists in the loftier cosmic documentaries that PBS tends to favor.

That's true in another upcoming "POV," the moving "Refrigerator Mothers," as it recalls harm done by batty early researchers who assumed that children became autistic when their moms treated them coolly. And true in "Boomtown," an ironic take on Native Americans of the Suquamish Nation near Seattle. They traditionally earn extra money by selling Fourth of July fireworks that celebrate what their leader, Bennie Armstrong, calls "the birth of a country that's been oppressing the Indians."

In a way, before he got sick, Steve Smith secretly straddled gay and straight cultures in Utah just as Armstrong says the Suquamish have lived in Washington for generations as "a country within a country."

Steve's deepest feelings about his wife, his church and his homosexuality are captured with remarkable intimacy by Salt Lake City-bred Oldham. As are Kim's feelings about him. And despite her conflicting emotions about the man who gave her a potential death sentence (her health today remains good), their moments together are as sweet and loving as any you'll see.

Oldham was just in her mid-20s, and making a documentary on the lives of Mormon women in Utah, when she heard of the Smiths. After meeting them, she decided to put aside what she was doing and instead chronicle this family's journey through the last two years of Steve's life.

No cheap lumps in the throat here. No filmmaker pouncing on her subjects with predatory close-ups and dishonest hankie shots designed to make her audience sob. Instead, Oldham's access to intensely private moments, and her restraint in capitalizing on that, speak warmly for themselves.

As do the film's devastating insights, from ravaged Steve's teary guilt about infecting his "innocent" wife, to Kim's lingering anger over his infidelity with men. In fact, with anyone. She's still "in the process of trying to forgive him," Kim says in a wobbly voice. She pauses to gather herself, then adds, "For what could have been."

There are two reconciliations on the table, though. One is Steve's with his family (the older Smith son, Tony, is much less forgiving of his father here than is the younger, Parker). The other is Steve's attempt to reconcile his sexuality with his religion, whose doctrine on family and homosexuality weighs here on all of the Smiths. Mormonism, Steve says, "does not make room for homosexuals."

At one point, he believed that confessing he was gay to church officials would end his "homosexual desire." Nonsense, of course. He spent years trying to change, in fact, before concluding that his homosexuality "could not be altered." Hoping to avoid excommunication, he lied to the church, claiming he "was changed, [but] I knew that I wasn't."

Steve was excommunicated. He died a Mormon. Although feeling "betrayed by the beliefs that I founded my life upon," Kim says late in the film that she, too, remains Mormon "in my soul."

Despite all that happens, her priority is keeping her family together, and her strength is something to behold. In another of those terrible-wonderful moments, Steve is nearing death and Tony is leaving for a two-year church mission in Mexico as Kim prepares for both "a funeral and a farewell." It's a juxtaposition you may never see again.

Before Steve dies, in a scene marking life's continuity with death, the Smiths and their sons visit four plots in a cemetery where someday they will rest together in the gray shadow of Utah's Wasatch Mountain range.

"Grew up beneath it," Kim says, "and buried beneath it."


"The Smith Family" airs on "POV" at 10 p.m. Tuesday on KCET-TV.


Howard Rosenberg's column appears Mondays and Fridays. He can be contacted at howard.rosenberg@latimes.com.

For The Record Los Angeles Times Tuesday June 25, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 15 inches; 564 words Type of Material: Correction Documentary--Howard Rosenberg's column in Monday's Calendar, on a documentary about a terminally ill Utah man named Steve Smith, mistakenly said that Smith had been excommunicated by the Mormon church. *
Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World