By Jeff Labrecque
October 23, 2014 at 02:00 PM EDT

Death was a constant shadow in the life of Abraham Lincoln, from his childhood on the American frontier to his assassination in 1865. In The Better Angels, writer/director A.J. Edwards—a disciple of the film’s producer Terrence Malick—focused on the three-year period of Lincoln’s youth where his young mother (Brit Marling) died, and his father (Jason Clarke) remarried a woman (Diane Kruger) who recognized Abe’s spark of intelligence and helped provide the moral and intellectual foundation that would one day preserve the Union. At his 1861 inauguration, with his country on the brink of civil war, President Lincoln appealed to “the better angels of our nature.” For Lincoln, the seeds of those sentiments were planted by the two women in his life who refused to let him be average.

Thirteen-year-old Braydon Denney had never acted before, but the Kentucky native beat out thousands of others to play the role of the future president—in part because of his outdoorsy athleticism and serene thoughtfulness. Lincoln was only nine years old when his mother died, and though untimely death was common in 1818, his bright future could’ve been snuffed out by grief and the rugged demeanor of his uneducated father.

“This is a film that portrays profound and personal loss, intense suffering, and the realization that faith and endurance can transform one’s suffering into good for all,” said Edwards, in the film’s production notes.

The Better Angels, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, opens in theaters on Nov. 7. EW has the exclusive trailer below: