Please note: The following text contains spoilers. Viewer discretion is also advised – Simon Birch is rated ‘PG’. Information about the film’s content from a Christian perspective is available from Christian Spotlight on Entertainment’s website:
Loosely adapted from John Irving’s 1989 novel A Prayer for Owen Meany, Simon Birch is certainly an odd fit in the Disney catalogue. Whilst the film is an overly sentimental crowd-pleaser (reinforced by a typically sweeping orchestral score and tear-jerking plot developments), it’s also concerned with unusually weighty, even lofty themes such as death, spirituality, and complicated family dynamics. It’s a far cry from anything Mickey Mouse and his friends ever had to face, that’s for certain, but these are some of Simon Birch’s unique strengths; like the titular character, there’s more to this film than initially meets the eye.
Set in a beautiful, New-England town throughout the 1950s and 60s, Simon Birch introduces us to best friends Simon (Ian Michael Smith) & Joseph (Joseph Mazzello) – two young, well-intentioned outsiders who find comfort in one another’s friendship. Due to being born with dwarfism, Simon is consistently undervalued, undermined, and verbally abused by his own family and townspeople. And Joseph, whilst he doesn’t struggle with a physical disability, is a child born out of wedlock and doesn’t know the identity of his father, which has proven to be a local scandal. So, the two outsiders find acceptance in one another, and set out to aid the other in discovering the answers to their biggest questions: What is the identity of Joe’s biological father, & what is God’s plan for Simon?
One of Simon Birch’s applaudable strengths is the relatable honesty with which director & screenwriter Mark Steven Johnson depicts Simon’s tireless, frustrating pursuit of uncovering God’s unique plan for his life. Fully aware that he’s the smallest baby ever delivered in the history of the town’s hospital, and that he was declared a miracle by the medical staff, the young boy can’t help but believe God must have a plan for his life – especially since many expected he wouldn’t survive. So, along with the help of Joseph, he sets out to discover his purpose, trying his hand disastrously at baseball and finding that acting is certainly not in his repertoire. Dejected, Simon looks for affirmation from his church family, but finds none. For both his Sunday School teacher Miss Leavey (Jan Hooks), and Reverend Russell (David Strathairn) deny that he is special, or that God even has a plan for his life:
Simon: “Does God have a plan for us?”
Rev. Russell: “I'd like to think he does.”
Simon: “Me too. I think God made me the way I am for a reason.”
Rev. Russell: “I'm glad that, um, that your faith, uh, helps you deal with your, um, you know, your condition.”
Simon: “That's not what I mean. I think I'm God's instrument. He's going to use me to carry out his plan”
Rev. Russell: “It's wonderful to have faith, son, but let's not overdo it.”
Now, Simon might not have been appointed as a prophet to the nations, but he exhibits unique qualities that, whilst overlooked by some, prove useful in certain situations. For example, Simon calms a young child who’s fearful of performing in the church’s Nativity play, noting to Joe that the children listen to him because of his physical appearance and kindness of heart. And later, at the film’s climax, we realise that he was indeed born and given certain abilities – just as Queen Esther was – “for such a time as this” (Esther 4:14, NIV). For when the school bus careers off an icy road and plummets into a lake, Simon utilises his abilities to command the school children’s attention and hold his breath underwater for long periods of time, to save everyone. Simon’s perceived disabilities and seemingly unimpressive qualities then, become his unique strengths for use in the service of others.
Screenwriter Mark Steven Johnson may have (intentionally or unintentionally) watered down the source novel’s Christian elements in his adaptation, but the fact remains: Simon, albeit flawed, cannot help but let the love of Jesus shine through him as God’s self-proclaimed “instrument”, thereby changing the lives of those around him for the glory of God (more on that in a moment). In so doing, he discovers his spiritual giftings and sets out to use them, blessing people with “encourage(ment)” (Romans 12:8, NLT) and showing “kindness to others” (12:8), whilst exhibiting “great faith” (1 Corinthians 12:9, NLT) in the process. As he honours God and people, the Lord steadily reveals Simon’s unique purpose, which ultimately becomes an act of valour.
In making God known to those around him, Simon spoke of what God is capable of and how He changes his life in the everyday, which seemingly impacted many for God’s glory. Perhaps Simon’s most significant expression of faith in God, however, came when he rescued the children in the bus crash. Later, in hospital, Simon reminds Joe that it was only him who was able to lead the children to safety, and that the window through which the children escaped “was just my size”, thereby indicating that God indeed used him as His instrument. Perhaps that was the day in which Joe’s faith began to develop? “With Simon’s help”, Joe later recalls, “I found my real father.” One can’t help but imagine that Joe wasn’t simply referring to his biological father, but also his heavenly one.
Simon ultimately knew that it was God’s plan for us to come to know our Heavenly Father personally, within whom we can work out our general purpose (to daily live out our faith in Christ) and fulfil our specific purposes in life (using the spiritual gifts we have been given to change the world around us for good), thereby entering into all that we’re supposed to be. And we can do that today, starting now, because of Jesus’ redemptive work on the cross for all of humanity. In accepting Him into our lives, we find forgiveness, freedom from sin, and the gift of eternal life forever. We find our heavenly father and the reason for our being – that which our human hearts long for, all in one.
Why not prayerfully invite a friend or family member who doesn’t yet know Jesus, to watch Simon Birch for themselves? Use the film’s themes to ask them what they thought of the film, if they spotted any links to Christianity and what they might think of the Gospel’s response to this subject.
If you feel able to, why not start a conversation with them and use the following questions?
1. Do you believe that God has a special purpose for your life? After discussing this question between yourselves, take some time to explain (from a biblical perspective) that God forms and instils within us a clear sense of purpose, which can be carried out using the unique abilities He has gifted to us. If you can, cite some examples of people in the Bible who discovered God’s purposes for their lives, such as the Apostle Paul.
2. Throughout the film, we see two examples of fatherly love – one is with complication and issue (Rev. Russell), the other (Ben Goodrich) is unconditionally loving and attentive. Did either of these fatherly characters remind you of your own experiences? Why or why not? Chat through God being our Father in Heaven and explain some of the reasons for why He is a wonderful, loving father (cite John 3:16, 1 John 4:9-10, Romans 5:5 if there’s time). Do they see God as their loving father? Why or why not?
Take the opportunity to share the hope of the Gospel message with them, encouraging them in the knowledge that by turning away from our sin and asking Jesus into our lives, we can step into life-giving, purpose-giving relationship with Him, that lasts for eternity.
Prior to watching the film for yourself, however, take a moment to pray that God would speak to you through the film. If you feel comfortable, pray this prayer over all your future, film-watching experiences:
Dear Lord, as I watch this film, I ask that you would be present here with me. Highlight to me anything within it that is honourable, anything that can be used in conversation for your Kingdom purposes. May I then use this film to speak of you to those who are lost and in great need of salvation. Amen.
Simon Birch is currently available to stream via Disney+ (U.K.)