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At last week's premiere of the Utah-made inspirational drama "Love, Kennedy," director-writer T.C. Christensen spoke movingly about his movie's real-life subject, Kennedy Ann Hansen.
"Kennedy's story is not a tragedy," Christensen said. "The story of Kennedy Hansen is a miracle."
That may be, and Christensen's movie makes the strong case that Kennedy was a wonderful person who brought joy and warmth to her family, friends, classmates and LDS ward even in the final year of her short life. But it's one thing to live a miracle and quite another to depict one on film and pull a compelling drama from it.
Kennedy Hansen (played by Tatum Chiniquy) was a normal girl growing up in Ogden, living with two siblings and their loving parents, Heather (Heather Beers) and Jason (Jasen Wade). As Jason's narration tells us, she wanted to be a cheerleader, wanted to drive and wanted to have a boyfriend.
After she suffered some falls at school, the Hansens took her to the doctor, who delivered a horrible diagnosis: Kennedy had Batten disease, a rare neurological disorder in which fats and proteins build up in nerve cells. The disease usually strikes children and teens, progressively affecting vision and motor function. There is no cure, and victims usually die young.
Once Kennedy is diagnosed, she and her family are determined to let her live to the fullest for as long as she is able. She cheers at her high school's football games, and the cheer squad encourage their coach to let her join the team, where she becomes an inspiration. She goes to a church dance, and the boys in the ward cheer her up by asking her to dance.
Christensen compiles several of these stories from Kennedy's short life. Drawing from the Hansens' community of friends, he fills the movie with authentic details filming scenes in the Hansens' house, casting people she knew in minor roles, and deploying her favorite song (Imagine Dragons' "Radioactive").
A series of episodes from Kennedy's life, though, don't add up to an engrossing movie. There's no dramatic arc or tension between characters, just a slow inevitable slide as Kennedy's condition worsens.
Christensen deploys a talented Utah cast, and fans of local movies will recognize Beers ("Charly") and Wade ("17 Miracles" and "The Cokeville Miracle," both directed by Christensen). Chiniquy is a real find, exuding Kennedy's warmth and spunk while also deftly handling the technical challenges of depicting her physical deterioration.
"Love, Kennedy" ends with a "miracle," a story of how Kennedy's spirit influenced one of her friends (Yvonne D. Bennett) and her family to rejoin the LDS Church. The anecdote makes for an interesting coda and shows the movie's fate won't be in theaters but in Sunday school lessons for years to come.
The true story of a girl's decline from a rare disease is more Sunday school lesson than compelling drama.
Where • Area theaters.
When • Opens Friday, June 2.
Rating • Not rated, but probably PG for themes of terminal illness.
Running time • 92 minutes.