T.C. Christensen has enjoyed recent successes with 17 Miracles and Ephraim’s Rescue. With his recent film, The Cokeville Miracle, he has moved on from pioneer period dramas to an event that occurred less than 30 years ago.
In 1986, on a regular day in quaint Cokeville, Wyoming, the citizens went about their business as usual. The few police officers were tasked to help out a neighboring city, ranchers went to work their lands and kids went to school. However, this day would turn out to transform the community forever. David and Doris Young entered Cokeville Elementary with the intent to take the children hostage in exchange for an extremely large reward. David, as you’ll quickly see, is more than willing to harm the children and possibly set off the bomb that he wheeled into the classroom with over 100 kids and teachers.
Preceding the tension, we dive into the everyday lives of Ron Hartley (Jasen Wade) and his family. While his wife, Claudia (Sarah Kent) and kids keep religion at the center of their lives, Ron has lost faith. In his time working for the state police, he has seen too much in the line of duty and can’t accept a God that would allow so much suffering to occur. Ron suffers a much different crisis as he learns that his two children are being held in the school.
Before the screening, I did minor research about the event at Cokeville. I learned about the incredible story that could easily be called a miracle.
The conclusion of the struggle at the elementary is hardly a spoiler. In fact, the trailer is very clear about what occurs. Half of the movie is dedicated to the hostage crisis, but it manages to be full of tension, even to those who know the outcome. Nathan Steven’s performance as David Young is chilling. Young is unpredictable, even to those who believe they are close to him.
You will be put in the middle of this traumatic experience and relate to the horror felt by the teachers whose only thoughts are for the children in peril. I was impressed by the caliber of the performances of everyone in the crowded classroom. Typically, kid actors are the weak links. Yet, in The Cokeville Miracle, there is a great balance of focus between younger and old actors. If there was weakness, it didn’t show.
Which leads us to the editing. Christensen utilizes a few clever quick cuts that transition between characters. These transitions keep the pace fresh even when there’s a notable division between two central stories.
The elephant in the room is whether this film is strictly for an LDS audience. Christensen managed to make it an inclusive experience for all Christians. The Cokeville community attends a church, but it never overtly says which denomination.
Those who are used to typical movie fare are spoiled with big budgets. The lower budget shows in this movie, but it doesn’t take away from the experience. The soundtrack manages to put an exclamation point on every scene and drive home the necessary emotions, whether it’s fear or joy.
The ending will come across to many as heavy-handed. Beyond the elementary school in crisis, the macro story is about struggling with personal faith. However, the heavy-handedness is earned by everything preceding it.
I normally don’t care for independent morality tales, but it captured my attention.The Cokeville Miracle is being released at the perfect time. It makes for great counter-programming to the mindless action movies that allow you to check out as soon as they begin. Whether you know the true story or not, this will be two hours well spent and is T.C. Christensen’s best film.