One’s religious viewpoint will determine one’s reactions to Joni, an inspirational drama starring the resilient Joni Eareckson as herself. While a teenager, she had a terrible diving accident, becoming paralyzed below the neck. Through a combination of guidance from Christians and support from loved ones, she forged a new path in life, eventually becoming an artist and singer in addition to giving motivational speeches at events hosted by the Rev. Billy Graham, who produced this biopic. With its one-dimensional approach to characterization and storytelling, Joni never tries to be much beyond an advertisement for the healing powers of Christianity, but it’s hard to call that approach insincere, seeing as how Eareckson tells her own story. (The movie was adapted from her memoir.) Therefore, the point here is not to suggest that Joni underwhelms simply because it’s a religious film—rather, the point is to suggest that viewers unreceptive to overtly religious messaging need proceed no further. Joni is less dynamic than the average ripped-from-the-headlines TV movie of the same vintage, and the best measure of Joni Eareckson’s acting ability is that she never acted again—one is impressed not by her communication skills but by her remarkable fortitude.
The movie begins with her accident, then proceeds, bluntly and without much momentum, through the phases of her emotional and spiritual recovery. Long hospital scenes filled with despair lead to multiple surgery sequences, and eventually to Eareckson’s struggle while mastering the operation of a motorized wheelchair. She also learns to paint by holding a brush between her teeth. Concurrently, Eareckson gravitates toward religion, finding solace in Christian notions of the hereafter, where Eareckson believes her body will be made whole. As noted earlier, the viewer’s ability to embrace Joni’s themes is largely predicated upon attitudes toward Christianity. That caveat stated, it’s fair to describe Joni as a somewhat competent melodrama, acceptably filmed and buoyed by workmanlike supporting performances from players including familiar Hollywood character actor Bert Remsen, who portrays Eareckson’s father.