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Monday, July 25, 2011

Movie Review: 17 Miracles

Sometimes when I've read movie reviews I've thought, "If the reviewer understood a little about actual movie-making, they might know what they're talking about." Well, as far as LDS cinema, I'd have to say that I feel somewhat "qualified."

Unfortunately, since the phenomenon of LDS cinema began (arguably with God's Army in 2000), I've personally followed the same behavior pattern as most other LDS consumers, i.e., I was very excited at first and saw them all--mostly in theatres, and often the day they were released! Then, after feeling like I'd been burned one too many times, I sort of became indifferent. I waited to hear the opinions of others before I saw much of anything. And even when others' reviews were marginally good, I generally waited to see an LDS movie on DVD. Despite a rash of high-quality, low-budget projects out of the gate, I finally came to the conclusion that it just wasn't worth spending my hard-earned $7-10 price for a theatre ticket on a movie that cost under a million to make, especially when I had the alternative of paying for another movie of equal length, in a neighboring theatre, that cost as much as 100 million or more. Maybe it had to do with a long string of relatively poor quality LDS films. Maybe the newness of the phenomenon had simply worn off. Most likely it was a little of both. And sadly, I'm still stuck in that rut, because despite the fact that 17 Miracles had been in theatres since June 3, I only broke down and bought a ticket for it last night, and that was only because we'd already seen (as a family) Captain America the night before and Emily and I couldn't find any other movie for our weekly date night.

Everyone has their favorites as far as LDS films. Peoples' favorites are normally the ones that most touched their hearts. I'll leave my own film off such a list. Not because I'm not proud of the acheivement. But for the same reason I'd leave my own books off such a list. When I'm the creator, not the consumer, I'm simply too close to the project to judge. So with that in mind, my personal favorite LDS film has always been The Best Two Years. Why? Well...I guess, more than anything, because of that single scene where Brother Rogers (K.C. Clyde) bore witness to his investigator, Mr. Harrison (Scott Christopher). That scene really got to me. Yes, there were other fine parts of that movie. If there hadn't been, the really GREAT scene wouldn't have worked. But that single scene really reignited all the feelings associated with my own testimony. Thus, I'll never forget it. Those are the kinds of things that determine our "favorites," right? Well, for me, personally, no other LDS film had quite achieved such a moment. However, finally, with T.C. Christensen's 17 Miracles I can happily report that an LDS filmmaker has once again "got to me." 

T.C. has been around a long time. He's always kept a hand in directing, but over the years he's probably become better known as one of the finest cinematographers in the Mountain West, having shot such LDS projects as Emma and Forever Strong. With 17 Miracles I think he has broken his own mold and written, directed, and produced what I think now stands as one of the strongest examples of LDS cinema.

He shares his writing credit on this story, although I think he is the sole author of the screenplay. It may be in the writing where this movie's true genius shines. Not in its wittiness or clever dialogue (though there are examples of both) but primarily in its simplicity. It's honesty.

We've all heard the spiritual anecdotes surrounding the Martin and Willie handcart tragedy for most of our Church lives. I also enjoyed Gerald Lund's historical novel Fire of the Covenant, sat through numerous firesides, and sent about half of my children on the now-traditional handcart treks celebrated by LDS stakes across Utah (and beyond) every four years. Still, the information and storytelling in 17 Miracles  struck me with such freshness that it was as if I was hearing these accounts for the first time. The genius, I believe, lies in the choices that T.C. and his co-writers made. Unlike other recountings that I've heard or read, T.C.'s story focused less on history and more on (as emphasized by the title) the miracles. Some of these miracles were new to me, such as the rage-filled husband who failed to recognize his converted wife and children when they were escaping on a train, or the "angel" (played by Bruce Newbold who also happens to be a veteran of Passage to Zarahemla) who provided meat to the starving pioneers and then "disappeared." Perhaps such incidents have been told to me before. Perhaps I'm just growing old and senile. Or perhaps T.C.'s movie dramatizes such events in a way that finally, permanently, seared them onto my memory and into my heart. I'd like to believe that it's the latter.

From the very opening scene the scriptwriters offered a profound comparison between the Donner Party that met a most tragic end in the mountains of California, and the members of the Mormon handcart companies, who might very well have succumbed to the same pressures, but didn't. The reasons why they did not sink to such depths of depravity was, I believe, the main point of the film, and it left viewers with much to ponder. It was this comparison and its inherent themes that, I believe, offered the fresh perspective which made the film's impact particularly strong. It was further emphasized as I read one of the final placards at the film's ending. This historical note informed viewers that the percentage of fatalities experienced by these two handcart companies was not particularly higher than what was experienced by other pioneer parties on the Oregon Trail. If this point is true (and I guess I'd have to brush up on western history to confirm it) it makes the story of the Willie and Martin Handcart companies all the more sublime--the fact that they did NOT succumb to the same savagery as the Donner Party and other groups who endured similar hardships. Instead these Mormon pioneers were bound together by their faith in a common purpose--the desire to follow the Lord's command and reach that magical destination called Zion--and by the abundant miracles that attended them because of their faith.

My congratulations to all involved in this project for injecting a much-needed shot in the arm to LDS cinema. It is a reaffirmation that the "thing" many LDS films have been missing is not big budgets, 3-D  effects, vertigo-inducing cinematography, or snappy editing, but a sincerity of storytelling born of simplicity, conviction, and testimony.

I urge all weary consumers of LDS cinema to give this one a chance, particularly before it leaves the big screen. I regret that I waited seven weeks to see it, if only because I could have written this review a little sooner. The fact that 17 Miracles is still in regional theatres after seven weeks and during such a hyped summer box-office season might be considered the 18th miracle surrounding this production. Or perhaps not. The fact is, this movie--because of its fine performances, veteran skills, and poignant storytelling-- sincerely deserves the attention and success that it is acheiving.

@ Copyright, Chris Heimerdinger 2011


  1. I'm glad I read this post. I wanted to see it but like you, was avoiding it because of LDS movies genre has become corny at best. This looked different so I'm glad to see the evidence that it is indeed different. Thanks!

  2. I can totally understand, but I also think I'm probably not as critical as some...lol I remember reading and also speaking with Richard Dutcher several years ago and how disappointed in what had come out of the LDS market. He had totally hoped that with the success of God's Army more film scripts would come forth that would be of excellent quality. Unfortunately, it has been more of what you've commented on. I've heard nothing but good about 17 Miracles, and can't wait to see it.

  3. I can understand what you mean by getting a little bored of LDS movies. I've seen them all around a BILLION times. You see, my dad has worked with the LDS motion picture studio for forever. He started as a set designer (working on Legacy and New Testaments) and then he worked up to bigger movies like Work in the Glory. Anyway, what I'm trying to say is I really have gotten bored with all this! If anything ever changes on set or in the script, he'll bring it home on a dvd and make us all sit and watch it and give our opinion! Fortunately, that hasn't happened in a while. Right now he's trying to build Jerusalem. Who knows if you've heard about it in Goshen. It's pretty big, though, and I've only had to see that around... I think it's my... twelfth time? I don't know. I saw 17 Miracles and I absolutely LOVED IT! That is honestly the best LDS film in history! I watched it the night before I went on Trek with my Stake so that gave it more meaning to me as well. I'm glad it's still in theaters.