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JONI

                

From the Oct. 3, 1981, Deseret News

JONI — Joni Eareckson, Bert Remsen, Katherine De Hetre, Cooper Huckabee; rated G

I'm not embararssed to admit that I entered the theater for this picture with some trepidation: a Billy Graham Evangelistic Film with quadriplegic Joni Eareckson playing herself? I was prepared for a sentimental, preachy, amateur production.

But that's not what I got.

Surprisingly, "Joni" is bright, intelligent and sinks its teeth into the subject of severe handicaps with a minimum of sentiment and a maximum of insight.

And even more surprising is Joni Eareckson's performance as herself. She offers an amazingly controlled, believable acting job in a role that takes her from the accident that crippled her to what is essentially her present state of life.

"Joni" is indeed a celebration of living and the struggle to bring some meaning to existence, no matter what the obstacles.

Joni (pronounced "Johnny") Eareckson was a high school athlete, a very active girl who enjoyed horseback riding and a number of sports. The accident came a month after she graduated, when she dove from a raft into shallow waters in Chesapeake Bay and broke her neck.

Though she survived, she lost the use of her body from the neck down and only through intensive therapy later learned to move her arms about — but she never regained the use of her hands.

The movie never skirts the issue of rage and Joni initially carries an enormous chip on her shoulder about the injustice life has dealt her.

Rather than spend her life bitter, however, she eventually turns to God for strength, and to those who have been trying to encourage her with advice.

The result is two hours of incredible honesty and a learning experience for the audience. "Joni" is also entertaining on its own level, however – often funny, always warm, constantly winning and repeatedly moving.

The only complaint I have is that the ending sinks into the preachy, clichéd, Hollywood formula sentiment that director James F. Collier has so carefully avoided throughout the first 90 percent of his picture.

This does not distract from the film's overall impact, however.

Eareckson first came to public attention via her incredible artistic ability. She paints and draws by holding the brush or pen in her teeth, and her talent is astonishing. She also displays a fine singing voice at the picture's end and the entire film is a tribute to her natural acting ability, as well as her triumphant life.

There are subtle shades in her performance that would put many professional actors to shame: her evolvement from bitterness to resolution to exuberance; her first on-camera TV interview, where she is very nervous; her reactions to the men who come into her life only to leave again when they can't handle what she is dealing with.

The professional actors who surround her as family and friends are all very good, making this a rare ensemble effort.

"Joni" is rated G, an uplifting, down-to-earth tale of courage and spirit worthy of any audience. It's also worthy of any major studio's finest work.