...shining light on the media, one review at a time
When Christian films are made, they generally seem to fall into one of two categories. They are often filled with good content and moral values, but the impact of the message is diminished through weak production values. Other attempts, some mustered recently, result in films that are more polished—with professional actors, compelling stories, and well-written scripts—but end up glossing over the Christian truths the movies were supposed to communicate.
Joni, the film that tells the true story of well-known evangelical author and speaker Joni Eareckson Tada, is a rare, welcome exception to the rule. Uncensored by Hollywood’s view of Christianity, this account of a young woman’s struggle with life, tragedy, and faith is here dramatized through powerful acting performances and strong direction—giving this film a potency that few Christian films equal.
The summer after graduating from high school is supposed to be special—even exceptional. For seventeen-year-old Joni, the summer following her graduation was just that, but in a way she and her family never would have expected or desired. This film wastes no time in gripping its audience, as it opens with the shocking event that changes Joni’s life forever.
Swimming with her sister, Kathy, and friends on a hot summer day, Joni dives into the water and disappears. Prompted by a bug-bite to talk to Joni, Kathy realizes that her sister doesn’t respond, and she swims to find Joni face down in the water, unable to move. After Joni is pulled from the water and her family goes through an emotional wait at the ER, they are told the news—Joni has broken her neck.
The Eareckson family is grateful for Joni’s miraculous survival of such an injury, but they soon realize that they face a long journey of trials ahead: their beloved daughter and sister is paralyzed from the shoulders down. Initially, Joni and her family hope that this paralysis is only temporary. But as her condition continues without change, a devastating fear grows. What if her paralysis is permanent?
The terror of facing life as a quadriplegic sends Joni spiraling through all the stages of grief—including denial, anger, self-hatred—and lands her in a deep depression. The filmmakers let us witness every moment of this experience with a portrayal that is never clinical or naive, as they don’t shy away from showing the harsh reality of Joni’s emotional and spiritual battle to make sense of her circumstances. In moments that make the film too heavy for youngsters, but add to the power of the story for older viewers, we hear Joni cry out to God, we see her lash out in anger, weep helpless tears, and even plead for assisted suicide. And if Joni’s paralysis wasn’t enough to deal with on its own, she also undergoes the breakup of more than one romantic relationship because of it.
Yet as Joni rails against God, rejecting Him and those around her in the backlash of her pain, the evidence of God at work in Joni’s life becomes all the more apparent. Could there be a reason for something so awful happening to a “good” person? And could that reason ever be enough to make Joni’s suffering meaningful? These are questions that Joni must face with each new day in her journey that is never easy, but reveals with disarming beauty the redemptive power of God’s love.
This is no Hollywoodized, politically correct religious fable, but one that displays God’s true character and presence as shown in the Bible. A bold and well-written script can be credited for this unusually respectful handling of Christianity. In a balance that many Christian movies don’t achieve, Christian content and even actual Scripture is seamlessly woven into the film, realistically blending into the accurate retelling of this true story. At the same time, foul language and immoral behavior are kept out of the movie. Mature themes are discussed and explored, making the film an inappropriate choice for young children, but these issues are handled in such a way that does not violate the Christian message or compromise the drama’s depiction of real people living in the real world.
Such verisimilitude seems to be the hallmark of this movie, likely due to the 1970’s film movement toward uncompromising realism. That this movie rides on the heels of this era is obvious, as we’re given an unglamorized, indelible look at Joni’s experience, from the indignities and discomfort of her hospital stay to the rejection and embarrassment of daily living that continues long after.
Enhancing this extreme realism is the casting of the real Joni Eareckson to play herself. Normally, such a choice might result in amateur acting that would kill the story’s impact. In this case, whether because she actually lived through the events the film depicts or because she is blessed with natural acting ability, Eareckson delivers a performance that would put many professional actors to shame. She never falters or hits a false moment, but instead illuminates the screen with an emotional vulnerability and sincerity that becomes the core of this film. Knowing that Eareckson was an inexperienced actor at the time, one must also give credit to director James Collier for guiding Eareckson and the more veteran supporting actors to such skilled performances.
The only area in which the production values of this film are not high is in the actual image quality, which has a decidedly late 70’s look. The cinematography itself shows skill and artistic talent in framing and capturing of the footage, but there’s a color limitation and low resolution commonly seen among TV or other low-budget movies of that era. Still, Joni delivers on more levels, and the ones that count the most, than the majority of modern movies working with limited funding.
Thanks to quality acting and writing, as well as the filmmakers’ commitment to a truthful and realistic telling of Joni’s story, this film is not the clichéd tale of a perfect Christian or unusually happy, lovable girl who has an accident and cheerfully recovers. Nor is it the telling of a supposedly Christian story that runs from any meaningful message about God and faith. Joni is instead the account of an ordinary young person who is broken by life and rebuilt into something wondrous by the hand of God.
Check out these similar titles:
The Hiding Place (1975, World Wide Pictures)
Caught (1987, WWP)
Scars That Heal (Documentary, 1993, WWP)