CHICAGO (Christian Examiner) – I'm a documentary junkie. I consumed Ken Burns' Civil War series in just a few days, and have watched countless other war documentaries since. ESPN's 30 for 30 sports documentaries are spectacular, and I've even taken in a few food documentaries on Netflix.
But I have never seen a documentary like To Joey, With Love, which is in theaters tonight and again Oct. 6. It is tragic, beautiful, sad, hilarious, tear-filled, inspiring and incredible – all at once. It's also a story about faith in God.
How else do you describe a behind-the-scenes film in which you watch a well-known husband-and-wife country music duo (Joey+Rory) celebrate a birth, and then bravely face a cancer diagnosis and a death – all before the credits roll?
The film – in case you're not familiar with the story – follows the story of Rory and Joey Feek, who were named the 2010 Academy of Country Music Top New Vocal Duo and were enjoying a flourishing musical career when they took a year off to enjoy the birth of their first child. They wanted a simpler life ... a life where they would live off the land on their own homestead in Middle Tennessee.
They also wanted to document everything, too, and so they recorded the joyful and the mundane moments with a video camera. Perhaps it would have ended up as a cute back-to-nature documentary on CMT. But – as Rory says -- God had other plans.
Their first surprise came when they learned their baby, a beautiful girl named Indiana, had Down syndrome. Their second surprise came when Joey was diagnosed, post-birth, with cervical cancer. Sure, Rory and Joey could have put the camera down and stopped documenting their life, but they continued to record everything.
When doctors performed surgery on Joey and told her that she was cancer-free, the Feeks' story appeared headed toward a fairy-tail ending. But that did not last long. Her cancer returned, and she grew thin and frail. Soon, it became apparent that she would not survive much longer, and so she set out to reach a few more goals before she died. She wanted to make an album with their favorite hymns, and she wanted to see her daughter's second birthday.
To make the transition for Indiana smoother – that is, to prepare Indiana for her mother's death – Joey even chose to see her daughter less and less in her final days. Rory began doing more of the day-to-day chores. And through it all, the Feeks continued, yes, to record everything.
A few months after Joey Feek died this year at the age of 40, someone suggested to Rory that the home videos would make for a compelling documentary. He agreed, and then proceeded to write, direct and narrate the film that the nation now can see in theaters.
Although Joey and Rory are the "stars" of the film, Indiana plays a major role, as well, making us laugh even though we know what is just around the corner. She is as sweet and beautiful as any little girl you'll ever see – I wanted to see more footage of her -- and it is my hope that her story will impact what moviegoers think about people with Down syndrome.
To Joey With Love is one of the best documentaries I have ever watched, but not simply because it is a behind-the-scenes look at a gut-wrenching, hope-filled story. Rather, it is a great film because we watch a couple face tragedy and death with grace and faith. They don't know why cancer entered their lives, and neither do we. But through it all, they remain steadfast in their trust in God, knowing there is more to life than this world.
I walked away with a greater appreciation for the brevity of life and with a goal of loving those around me even more. No doubt, other moviegoers will, too.
Entertainment rating: 5 out of 5 stars. Family-friendly rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars.
To Joey With Love is unrated.
Content: There is no language, sexuality or violence. We do see Joey breast feeding, although the angle is such that the scene does not reveal anything.