“This Day Forward” movie review
by Conrad Bascom
Lake Mills Graphic
The Forest Theater broke from routine and slotted an additional movie in before the traditional 4 o’clock matinee and evening show on Sunday, Oct. 7—which wasn’t the only departure from business as usual, it turns out, as tickets to this one-time showing of the Iowa-shot and Iowan-directed faith film “This Day Forward” were also free.
“This Day Forward” is a film born from unlikely circumstances: it so happens that the director, Wartburg-graduate Brian Ide, attends an Episcopal church in Los Angeles, Calif., with a larger than average number of showbiz-churchgoers, so when he and his fellow congregants began to discuss what they perceived as a need for complicated portrayals of faith journeys in cinema, they decided to put their money where their mouth is and produce one themselves. Members of the congregation created their own production company (A New Song Productions) and then set about financing their first film, with Brian Ide stationed at the helm. Ide then had what one might characterize as a ‘eureka moment’: he realized that he already knew the perfect story for their debut feature to tell.
Mike and Jennifer Jensen are well-known and well-loved residents of Waverly. They both graduated from Wartburg College in the mid-90s. It was at Wartburg that their serendipitous connection with Brian Ide would be formed. Following graduation, the Jensen’s made the decision to settle in Waverly for good. The commute from Waverly to Cedar Rapids isn’t soul-crushing (Jennifer runs a chiropractic clinic called the Worldwide Wellness Center there) and Mike would be able to get to his jobs as a vocal instructor at Wartburg and worship director in Cedar Falls with relative ease. For a long time, people probably would venture to say that their life was more idyllic than most—their work lives were good, home life was great as they welcomed three daughters into it, and the Jensens had plenty of love for each other. For the Jensens, it felt as if their steadfast faith in God had been rightly rewarded. That was until Mike was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer in 2013 and their lives were changed irrevocably.
“This Day Forward” begins in media res; we awake in Waverly to Jennifer Jensen (played by the actress Hayden Wyatt) yawning and clambering out of the bottom bunk she shares with her youngest daughter, the room filled with the telltale gurgle of brewing coffee. Jennifer, hardly-rested, sleepwalks into the hall and automatically checks the bedroom adjacent to theirs. We witness the panic set in, as she sees that it’s empty and watch as she gallops down the stairs, yelling for her eldest daughter to help her. Mike is missing, which always spells trouble, if not disaster. Luckily, on this occasion, Mike is only strumming his guitar in the crisp air of morning out back. For both those who know nothing of the Jensens and those who do, the beginning of “This Day Forward” is a canny and nuanced introduction to the stakes and the themes of the film. Through the span of only a few frenetic moments, the film manages to communicate the total upheaval of ordinary life illness can bring about, illustrated by the mundane details of a morning at the Jensen’s house. We learn that Mike and Jennifer are no longer able to share a room; we learn that Mike’s mother is spending most nights with him; we learn that Mike is prone to forgetfulness and that his condition is debilitating enough that it is dangerous for him to wander off alone; we learn that their eldest daughter is fed up with the constant interruptions of teenage normalcy; and we learn that Jennifer is desperately in need of a day off.
Squeezed into the span of a single day and seen primarily through the eyes of Jennifer, “This Day Forward” is by and large the story of one woman wrestling with the consequences of her husband’s cancer: the way in which his cancer has transformed her into a full-time caretaker; the struggles of being a single parent, in essence (as Mike’s verbal faculties have been severely incapacitated by treatments and surgeries), so it’s difficult for him to present to his daughters in this way); and lastly, the ways in which Mike’s illness have fundamentally shook Jennifer’s faith, forcing her to contend with the question, “Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people?”
“This Day Forward” is also a portrayal of an extreme perseverance of faith, as we witness Mike continuing to lead congregants in song on Sundays despite his encroaching cancer—exposition which is given through the use of flashbacks from Jennifer’s P.O.V.
I have to momentarily break the fourth wall to say that, for this reviewer, “This Day Forward” is a refreshingly subtle faith film, as it leaves the proselytizing at the door and is instead, interested in a more honest portrayal of its characters—giving just as much screen time to their doubts as their faith. This is the reason that I believe that it transcends simplistic faith films such as “God’s Not Dead” and other Christianity-triumphant narratives.
“This Day Forward” traffics in more universal messages and is practically devoid of scripture: instead, it is a film about believing in something and choosing to hold onto the qualities you believe in, even when the going gets rough. As we all know, life doesn’t necessarily make sense all of the time, and I applaud “This Day Forward” director Brian Ide, and its screenwriter, Nick Schober, for not skirting this fact. I had an opportunity to eat lunch with director Brian Ide, and he spoke to these narrative choices himself. In his words:
“I’m a big believer in making the audience do some work, as I really like the idea that life is just messy—and that’s what we’re trying to say with this thing. You take what you need to from this, all I’m going to do is just unveil it. I’m not making this to say that church is where everything is answered . . . we didn’t want it to be a propaganda film. That’s just who Mike and Jennifer are. We wanted to include their faith to be honest to them, but not as some tool to stick in there. And that is honestly one of the big reasons why we didn’t include what happens to Mike.”
Now, this isn’t necessarily a spoiler, as the film itself doesn’t even reveal whether Mike survives his multiple bouts with cancer (as mentioned by Brian), but the screening at Forest City was especially affecting, as both Mike and Jennifer Jensen were able to attend. Raucous applause broke out when Mike greeted the crowd at the front of the theater following the screening and it was genuinely emotional moment. Five years on from his initial diagnosis, Mike is still kicking and his tumor has stopped growing. It’s up to the audience to decide whether his faith played a part.
Regardless of your personal beliefs, “This Day Forward” is worth a few hours out of your afternoon: there are at least three more screenings and Q&As with director Brian Ide and Jennifer Jensen scheduled in Iowa (Solon, Manchester, and North Liberty), which you can find at ThisDayForwardMovie.com. Also, if you are interested in scheduling your own screening of “This Day Forward,” please reach out via the website or to ThisDayForwardMovie@gmail.com.