It doesn't entirely work as either historical drama or religious affirmation, but T.C. Christensen's earnest, painstakingly crafted account of trials borne by the two most famous companies of Mormon handcart pioneers will certainly earn your respect for the dogged commitment of the 19th-century settlers who laid the foundations of the American West.
The Latter-day Saint hymn "They, The Builders of the Nation" suggests of the hardy men, women and children who literally dragged the raw materials of civilization across the Great Plains that "stepping stones for generations were their deeds of ev'ry day," and Christensen's problematic narrative captures some of that rugged homesteader spirit.
The film's opening may confuse many viewers, since we embark at a point in time well before the advent of the handcart system and in a location far to the West of any ground the handcarters ever trod. A subtitle places us in California's Sierra Nevada mountains, circa 1847, but then there are confusingly edited frames of men who seem to be running either from something or toward it.
The men discover a cabin that evidently contains something horrible (kept tastefully concealed from our view) and a uniformed Army officer appears and orders them to burn it. The men hesitate before suggesting that a prayer be said, their commander consents, and only after all of that is there a second subtitle informing us that the men are members of the Mormon Battalion who have been ordered to seek out and dispose of the remains of the infamous and ill-fated Donner Party.
This is a problem that recurs throughout the film, which has an organizational structure that is often inelegant and sometimes simply jumbled. It's not just in terms of incomplete or missing information, either. Immediately after an interlude that feels like it has delivered the story's natural climax, there's a borderline comically mistimed depiction of a man beating off one last attack by ravening wolves.
(Ravening wolves are all over "17 Miracles," incidentally. Even the last "Twilight" movie didn't have this many shots of a meanie-weenie wolf snarling or snapping at someone.)
The Donner Party material and scenes of missionary leave-taking that follow it provide context for the film's main character, Levi Savage. After serving in the Battalion, settling in the Utah Territory, losing his wife, and leaving his infant son in the care of relatives to spend three years proselytizing in the Far East, Savage is returning home via New York City when he's enlisted by fellow Latter-day Saints to assist in leading a late-departing handcart company on the perilous trek west.
That's the story for a while. Despite being deeply unsettled by his memories of the Donner aftermath, Savage does his best to be a dutiful participant in the crossing, even after being sternly rebuked for publicly questioning the wisdom of the group's late summer start.
After a time, however, Christensen lets that narrative slide to a halt while depicting benevolent and unexplained occurrences that enabled some members of the company to push forward. Some are open to interpretation, like a girl's fevered vision of her future husband, while others are on the level of a pie more or less magically appearing at the feet of a young woman attempting to revive the spirits of her inconsolable mother.
Each incident is depicted separately, though most of them are lumped together in the middle of the movie. The miracles are treated like mini-stories instead of feeling woven through the larger narrative that's anchored to Levi Savage.
In much the same way, many of the deaths that befell get crammed together in a sequence that doesn't impart very much of the uncertainty or fear that would naturally have swirled around such events. The deaths don't have enough separation from each other to be impactful.
The costuming and production design of the movie are immaculate, and there are a number of moving performances, especially from Natalie Blackman and Jason Celaya as a star-crossed couple waiting to be married until they complete their journey. There's a wordless scene of the not-yet-lovers teasing each other by a river that's tender and lovely.
Regarding the themes it feels intended to convey most powerfully, however, "17 Miracles" is more informational than inspiring. Information, of course, can be astonishing in its way. End titles reveal that two of the girls who survived the ordeal each went on to become mothers to 13 children. Given the uncertainties of 19th-century medicine, I'd say that's 26 miracles right there.