But the living, breathing people who made up that well-known company were so much more than that. In the new movie “17 Miracles,” T.C. Christensen takes the journal entries from the pioneers who made those dangerous, difficult journeys and brings them to vivid, beautiful, heart-wrenching life. By the end of the movie you’ll be breathless for them, so caught up in the moment that you’ll forget that you already know the end of the story.
For the first 15 or so minutes, however, the emotion you’re most likely to feel is confusion. Christensen is so focused on immediacy that there’s not quite enough set-up to keep audience members from feeling lost, and even those who know the history (all the stories in the movie are true) will take a little while to find their feet.
A few facts, though, can make for a far enjoyable opening (the rest of the paragraph is technically spoilers, but you’ll thank me later). In the first scene, Levi Savage and other members of the Mormon Battalion find the remains of the infamous Donner Party on the way back to Utah (this memory will stay with him very strongly). The second scene is in Utah, where Savage is called on a mission after his wife has died and he has to say goodbye to his son, and afterwards we jump to England where we meet some of the people who end up in the Willie handcart company.
After that, though, the characters pull you right into the middle of the story’s beating heart. As Levi Savage, the pioneer whose story ties everyone else’s together, Jasen Wade has an exquisitely expressive face that makes the character’s hope and anguish clear no matter how strong his words are (and in fact gives the words more strength, because we know how much he’s feeling).
Nathan Mitchell brings a decidedly human dimension to Captain James G. Willie, a brave performance that I could admire even as I grew gravely worried about some of the man’s decisions. Natalie Blackman gives Sarah Franks an innocent, romantic heart (with a different education she would have been quoting “Romeo and Juliet”) and Jason Celaya rarely needs to speak to show the gentle depths of George Padley’s devotion.
Our hearts break for these people when they’re lost in darker moments (when you go into any story about the Willie handcart company, there will always be darker moments). Still, there are enough small, lovely moments and genuine laughs that the feeling of life and hope stays strong enough to carry both the characters and the audience through to a final embrace in the sunshine.
The feeling of knowing these people will stay far longer, a breath of love and memory that will linger every time you see a flat little paragraph in a history book. No matter how iconic their story has become, these people will never be shorthand.
Theater notes: The show is being released on a limited number of screens, though lucky for us two of those screens are at the Megaplex 12 at the Gateway and the Layton Tinseltown 17. Early reports said it would also be at the Bountiful Cinemark, but the movie didn’t appear on their marquee.