Love, Kennedy opens June 2 in selected theaters.
Some stories have to be told and T.C. Christensen’s new film Love, Kennedy was one of those. On the surface it’s the story of a loving, spunky young girl’s descent into blindness, loss of motor skills, speech and finally cognitive abilities due to Juvenile Batten disease, a rare neurological disorder. That sounds like a downer for a movie premise, but, in fact, true to form, Christensen has created something beautiful and touching that will leave movie-goers moved and uplifted.
I sneaked a peek at my husband’s face as we were watching the film and tears wetted both of our cheeks, not because we were sad, but we were so moved at the poignancy of life and the deep involvement of the Lord in its details.
Kennedy Hansen, who died three years ago on May 30, 2014, wanted her story told because she hoped it would send a message of unswerving faith and courage in the face of crippling obstacles. God lives and He held her hand through what should have been an impossible ordeal.
She was living with her family in West Haven, near Ogden, Utah, when she began to have falls at school. When her parents, Heather and Jason (played by Heather Beers and Jason Wade), took her to the doctor, they received a terrible diagnosis. Kennedy had an incurable and rare neurological disease and victims usually die young.
Still, the Hansens were determined that Kennedy should have her dreams realized, which included being on the cheer leading team, going to a dance, and driving
Her final, and ultimate, dream, however, was that her story be told to help others.
“If this was a story about a girl who dies, I wouldn’t have made the film,” said Christensen. Instead it is the story of a girl, known for her unconditional love. She was one who sought out the bully who knocked her down on the opposing soccer team to give her a hug.
“She is the victim of undeserved misfortune, something we can identify with” said the filmmaker. “One thing I look for in a story, is for the viewer not to be able to imagine that it gets better, and then it gets better.”
You Have to Hear This Story
Christensen said, when he chooses films to make, he looks for the best story out there. He found this story because after he had given a fireside in West Haven, Utah, where Kennedy Hansen’s family lives. Jason, her father, came up to him after the event and said, “You have to hear a story about my daughter.”
Thousands of others had already heard it. As Kennedy gradually began to exhibit the debilitating symptoms of her disease, Jason, and Heather, began to document the story on a Facebook page, Kennedy’s Hugs.
“It just exploded,” said Heather. We wanted to share her journey and every day to chronicle the inspiring stories. It caught on like wildfire. People are craving that hope and courage to continue on. That was our message and it spread.”
Social media experts contacted the Hansens to see how they attracted such a large following, and how much money they spent advertising their Facebook project. They answered that they had spent no money, but, said Heather, “We had the understanding as a family that we could potentially help others and that was the greater purpose in our tragedy.”
“We were just enveloped in love,” through the ordeal, said Heather.
On that Facebook page, they shared tender feelings like this note written by her father on the day of Kennedy’s death:
“It all came together so perfectly and as she had wished. If you believe in miracles, we saw them today. She fought so hard to be with everyone who came and visited her. The visits were endless and we have never seen someone cry out of sorrow from dawn until dusk. But Kennedy did today. She knew that today she would be going home and we had her pain under control…As each person would tell her goodbye, she would just cry and reach out to them.
“She told us last night that after the cheerleaders made their visits that she would be ready to go. The cheerleaders came…all 27 of them and one by one, they each laid by her side and told her goodbye. She cried with each one of them, knowing their pain. Ultimately, they gathered around her and sang, “Let it Go!” This brought so much peace to her heart.”
A Tough Creative Project
It is easy for a film about the loss of a vibrant teenager to become merely a sentimental tearjerker, mournful and manipulative, designed to compel easy emotion from the viewers. Love, Kennedy escapes that trap, instead, bringing the viewer face to face with the mix of tragedy and majesty that this life is.
T.C. Christensen shows his considerable directorial sensitivity in pulling it off. How did he do it? In part, it is because he is experienced, based on having made many films including The Cokeville Miracle, 17 Miracles, and Elphraim’s Rescue. The film was also extensively tested with audiences to make sure he had struck just the right note.
Among those who seek to create film for Latter-day Saints, Christensen has created a consistent body of work that is unsophomoric, professional and creative—not an easy thing to do when your subject matter is so often topics hard to portray like spirituality, miracles, and God’s hand in the lives of His children.
It is also noteworthy that he has not shied away from those projects and has targeted an LDS audience with scenes that the secular would surely reject.
It also means that he works with a small budget to make a film—around a half a million. In a world fueled by Hollywood films whose budgets can soar from $200 million and beyond. This means, Christensen, looks to his ingenuity to pull it off and wears more hats than most filmmakers.
Since his background is as a highly sought-after director of photography, setting the light and backgrounds so they will be compelling “is just the way I think,” he says. His films always look way better than they cost.
“Most of my film-making friends feel like it is small potatoes to work in this LDS arena. They want to make films for the world that open in 2,000 theaters. I don’t have any problem at all making films for our culture. It works. It is satisfying.”
We’re Telling the Truth
The reason this movie works, according to Christensen is because “We’re telling the truth, and I’m not going to change it. If Kennedy’s friend, Lexi, tells about an experience she has with her after her death, I don’t have shyness about showing it.
“If I was just making this up, it could go into the maudlin, sappy stuff very quickly, but because we say at the beginning that this is a true story, people can just relax and drop into it.”
“There are no made up moments,” said Heather of the film. “We carefully chronicled our experience together.”
Other producers wanted to do the film but Heather said, “We went with T.C. because we knew he would tell the true story. Other producers approached us with money, but we were not comfortable because we knew her story would be changed. The message could not be shared in the way Kennedy wants to share it.
“With this film, I can say to Kennedy, ‘OK, we’ve done it. We’re keeping your legacy alive.” The premiere for the Hansen’s family and friends was on what for them was a tender date, May 30, the third anniversary of her death.
Sharing Personal Moments
Thus, the movie shares moments that are both personal, and difficult. More than two years before Kennedy’s diagnosis, when she was already showing symptoms, Jason had an experience in prayer where he was told, “My son, I need Kennedy to come home.” It was powerful enough that he couldn’t deny it.
Heather said that Jason waited some time to tell her of that experience, and “when he finally told me, I didn’t doubt that he had that experience, but as a mother I wasn’t ready to accept that.”
Jason told her that she needed to get ready for this, but she struggled. “Then finally,” she said, “six months before the diagnosis, I was able to have my own experience where I woke up in the middle of the night and I felt such an overwhelming confirmation that what Jason had been telling me was true. I also heard the words, ‘I need Kennedy home.’”
She said, “Jason carried that knowledge for quite some time, alone. I can’t imagine how he felt with that, but we were prepared, and it made the process even more beautiful.”
“You look back on your life, and you see those tender mercies,” said Heather. “Some miracles you recognize very quickly and the others take some time.”
One miracle that Heather said that wasn’t in the movie was the difficulty she had getting pregnant after they gave birth to Kennedy. She is their only biological child and their large family is all adopted.
The Hansens went to many doctors seeking to have more children, but all of them concluded that since they had already had one child, they should logically be able to have another.
Finally, after extensive testing, the doctors concluded that the Hansens were biologically incapable of having children together. “I had a very difficult time accepting the fact that we couldn’t have more children,” said Heather, “and I didn’t understand it.” The doctors could give no logical explanation for why they had been able to have Kennedy.
“As it turned out,” said Heather, “it was a blessing that we couldn’t have more children, because the neurological disease that Kennedy had is genetic. Both Jason and I carry a recessive gene, and all of our children would have had this. In a sense, God protected us from having to experience what we did with Kennedy again and again.”
The Hansen’s as Team Members
From the beginning, the Hansen’s were intimately involved with the film project. They collaborated with Christensen in the choice of the actor, Tatum Chiniquy, to play Kennedy. In fact, Tatum, who shone in the role, said she felt a closeness to Kennedy that she needed to portray her.
“So many things about Kennedy, Tatum got spot on in the film,” said Heather. The Hansens have stayed close to Tatum since the filming and she has become almost like another daughter to them
To create the script, Christensen had access to Jason Hansen’s journals, Facebook messages and a book the Hansen’s had written about their journey called Kennedy’s Hugs.
An idea that has influenced Christensen’s work comes from his filmmaking hero, Frank Capra, who wrote an autobiography called The Name above the Title. “In that book,” said Christensen, “Capra talks about the decline of morality in film and said that only the morally courageous should be worthy of speaking to their fellow men for two hours in the dark. If I am going to be in a powerful medium like this, I decided I want to influence for good.”
He has with Love, Kennedy.