"17 MIRACLES" — ★★★ — Jason Wade, Travis Eberhard, Chantel Flanders, Bailee Michelle Johnson, Thomas Kofod ; PG (thematic material involving hardships and suffering); in general release

T.C. Christensen's new film "17 Miracles" brings the story of the Willie Handcart Company to life in a most unique and touching way.

There is no way to downplay the deprivations, and that's certainly not the intent of the filmmakers. But to emphasize the courage and the miracles that lead to the survival of so many is refreshing and inspiring.

The movie focuses on the experiences of Levi Savage, wonderfully portrayed by Jason Wade. In the opening scenes Levi and other members of the Mormon Battalion are disposing of the remains of the Donner Party while on their trek back to Zion. To say the least, this has an indelible impact on the men and is a constant reminder to Levi what desperate people are capable of. Five years later, when called on a mission to Siam, we discover that Levi has lost his wife and has a baby son. He accepts the call and tearfully leaves his son to the care of his sister.

As Brother Savage's mission draws to a close, the time happens to coincide with a migration of Europeans under the direction of Capt. James Willie, determined to swiftly join the Saints in Zion. Levi is recruited to be "a Captain of Twenty" for the ill-fated handcart company. Delay after delay plagues the group and Levi speaks his mind, warning of the possibility of disaster by leaving so late in the season, only to be chastised by Capt. Willie for his lack of faith. While absolutely right in his concerns, especially in light of his experiences with the Donner Party, Levi accepts the rebuke and expresses determination to do all in his power to help get the group to the Great Salt Lake Valley.

What follows is an intimate portrayal of the trek that takes us right into the lives, the joys and the struggles of people we grow to care about as if they're members of our own family.

Sprinkled throughout are the miracles. Some are simple gifts, others inexplicably profound. I lost count of how many times I teared up while watching this film.

Some of these stories I've heard before, others were new to me, but there's something in the way T.C. Christensen brings them to life that is stunning. While there are many admirable performances in "17 Miracles," I can't say enough about Wade's Levi. In many ways, the story is told through the joy, concern, shock and sorrow in this character's eyes.

"17 Miracles" is rated PG for thematic material involving hardships and suffering; running time: 113 minutes.