Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Love, Kennedy Review

It's time to dive into Mormonville with my next movie review as we discuss T.C. Christensen's latest film, "Love, Kennedy." If you are an active member of the LDS church and you've watched any church videos, short or long, you've definitely seen T.C. Christensen's work, even if the name is jumping to your head right away. Films like "Finding Faith in Christ," "The Restoration," "Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration" and "Treasure in Heaven: The John Tanner Story" are all examples of his work. Recently, though, his feature-length theatrical releases include "17 Miracles," "Ephraim's Rescue" and "The Cokeville Miracle." See? I told you that you know this man's work. With a lot of LDS-themed films under his belt, it's safe to say the man knows how to make a film for the LDS audience. If you're not LDS and you're reading this review, well I'm not exactly sure what to tell you. If you don't like these religious films, then you probably weren't going to see this anyways, but you can still read on if you want to. But I'm going to assume that most people that clicked on this review are active members of the LDS faith because that's exactly who this movie is made for. This is a movie that's here to remind us of what's most important in our lives and it does a great job.

No director has a completely flawless record. It's just the nature of the business. For me I think "The Cokeville Miracle" was a bit of a bump in the road for T.C. Christensen, but I chalk that up to subject matter, not poor film making. It's a bit of a curious choice to make a movie about a school of children who miraculously survived a school hostage situation not long after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting where 20 kids were shot and killed. Why did God allow those kids to die while deciding to save the kids from Cokeville Elementary School? That's a question that wasn't really answered at all in the film, so I don't think it was great timing. I was hoping with this latest film that T.C. would make a recovery because I really enjoyed both "17 Miracles" and "Ephraim's Rescue," even though they are like the same movie, but from different perspectives. With "Love, Kennedy,"  there's no issue with the subject matter as T.C. goes back to making a faith-inspiring film that LDS audiences should eat right up. The big trick here is the narrative structure is such that it's hard for any filmmaker, regardless of experience, to get completely right and I don't know if "Love, Kennedy" completely succeeds at this even though it makes the audience bawl their eyes out.

This narrative structure I speak of is that of telling the story of the life of an individual. This individual is Kennedy Hansen, who as a young girl grew up like a typical child with lots of dreams and aspirations which include dating, driving a car and being a cheerleader. On top of that, she's the sweetest, most loving, Christlike child you'll ever meet. But once she gets older they discover she has what's called Batten Disease, an extremely rare, incurable disease where the person slowly starts losing their eyesight and mental capacity until the inevitable happens. So yeah, being diagnosed with a terminal illness is not a fun thing for anyone involved and everyone reacts in a different way, but often confusion and anger is mixed in there somewhere. Why me? Or why my daughter. What did she/I do wrong to deserve this? In this instance, young Kennedy was practically perfect in every way with how she handled things, thus inspiring everyone around her, from family to friends and even strangers who didn't know her well. Consequently, we as an audience watching her story unfold are also inspired to learn or remember what's most important in life and what attitude we should have towards the things that trouble us. Thus her life becomes a love letter to all.

Perhaps it's the analytical thinker in me who has watched and reviews a whole ton of movies in the last five years, but I'm not one to give an automatic pass to every faith-based film just because it left me with an inspiring message. I prefer the film making qualities to be up to par with the message and theme. There's a lot of poor quality films with great messages that I'm not going to simply ignore the flaws because my heart strings were successfully tugged at. I'm not saying this is one of those poor quality films, but I was slightly distracted at the fact that this didn't feel quite as polished as some of T.C.'s previous work in terms of the technical aspects of the film. The movie felt a lot more homemade that usual as if they didn't quite have as big of a budget to work with this time around. The camera work and editing felt more like a first time filmmaker instead of a seasoned veteran and the cinematography didn't quite jump out at me. If they were working on a smaller budget this time around, I can understand that, but I still don't give it an automatic pass because I've seen movies made on small budgets that you certainly would've fooled me had you claimed they had a big budget to work with. Then sometimes you can flip that around and fail with a big budget, so no excuse.

I really do feel bad saying these things because I know a lot of people are going to love this movie and certainly won't be as nit-picky as I am right now. I've also met and talked with T.C. Christensen and I definitely have a lot of respect for him as a filmmaker and as a person in general, so I hate to be the annoying little movie critic, but I commit myself to being honest and I'm not going to blindly praise a movie that I found a bit distracting and slightly unpolished. Then we have this narrative structure I referenced earlier. There's not really one major through story arc here. It's Kennedy living through her first year of high school while suffering from this awful disease as she slowly digresses throughout the film. There's a lot of individual segments that often only loosely connect together to make one movie. With much of this film, you could probably watch a lot of these individual segments on their own or even out of order without missing a beat as they sometimes stumbled a bit from scene to scene. Then you think the movie is going to end, but we have another major segment of the movie attached at the end. Thus instead of having a beautifully polished narrative that flows seamlessly, we have a great, inspiring story that's a bit a bit rough around the edges.

But oh my freaking goodness, what I am doing here? I was a lot more negative in those last two paragraphs than I meant to be. Even if the movie is a tad bit clunky at times with a bit of a low-budget feel to it, this is a movie that grabs you right from the start and forces you to brace for the worst. We introduce this family that is extremely likable and this little girl that is just a precious little angel, then we get slammed in the head with a baseball bat as she is diagnosed with this terminal illness. Immediately you know what is going to happen, but you don't want it to happen, thus you are prepared to have your heart ripped out and stomped on. Then throughout this journey we are introduced to character after character who completely melts your heart with the stunning acts of service that they perform for Kennedy that make me want to go find the real life people and thank them for what they did, which is not entirely impossible in this scenario given that this is a recent story that took place practically in my back yard somewhere in Utah. Christlike love and service are shown in abundance throughout this film that it's no wonder that there were so many sniffles in my theater. I could also use the cliche statement that there wasn't a dry eye in the building during certain scenes because it was true.

Then we have our cast. Holy cow were they great! The only name and face that I recognized is that of Jasen Wade, who has played the lead role in several of these recent T.C. Christensen films. He pulled off another great performance as Kennedy's father, who went through quite the emotional journey throughout this film. We also have a slew of supporting characters that all did a great job. I'm not going to name them all by name because I've already talked your ear off, metaphorically speaking, but I do want to call out the absolute star of this film and that is Tatum Chiniquy as Kennedy. I've never seen her in any prior film and her IMDb page claims this is her first major theatrical role, but she took on quite the difficult task here of playing this teenage girl who is slowly degenerating mentally and she knocks it out of the park. This movie hinges solely on us caring for this girl and Tatum gives the absolute perfect performance. I was reminded in many ways of Eddie Redmayne's Oscar winning performance as Stephen Hawking in "The Theory of Everything." So if any of my friends happen to know Tatum, which has happened before with these local movies, pass on the word to her that I'm a huge fan of what she pulled off here and I hope to see her on screen again soon.

Overall, I did a lot more complaining in this review than I meant to, so I hope you don't walk away thinking I hated this movie. There were just certain technical aspects of the movie that I didn't feel were up to par with what T.C. Christensen usually produces and the narrative wasn't as smooth as it could've been. And it may have had a bit too much narration. But despite that, this is a movie that knows its target audience and what it needs to do to please them and it fully succeeds. We have a gripping story that is both tragic and inspiring as there's a whole lot that everyone can learn from the story of Kennedy about life and perspective. There were plenty of people in my theater with me that were downright sobbing at the end of this film. There were a lot of sniffling and a lot of tissues wiping away tears. That should say a lot. This movie is kind of leaving theaters quickly, so if you don't see this now, you may have to wait till the DVD comes out, which wouldn't be the end of the world. But at the moment it's in most of the Megaplex theaters in Northern Utah if you're anxious to enjoy this on the big screen. But act now. Or you can wait as this will make a pretty darn good Sunday movie night with your family and friends. I'm going to give "Love, Kennedy" an 8/10.

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