Christian films, or faith-based entertainment, have earned a reputation over the years for servicing their message instead of their story. It’s OK to be a religious movie, so long as you don’t forget to be and actual movie in the process, delivering elements that range from a compelling script and credible performances to something passing as an emotional investment for the audience. We came to the movies. We didn’t go to church.
Miracles From Heaven won’t be mistaken for pure-bred popcorn fare, but it’s far more mainstream than like-minded members of its cinematic congregation. For starters, it rests on the shoulders of a bona-fide movie star in Jennifer Garner, and she’s surrounded by a seasoned cast working for a director in Patricia Riggen (The 33) who can coax melodrama out of a true-life situation without manipulating an audience member or plucking too hard on our heartstrings. That’s not to say the Religious Message – capitalized for emphasis – doesn’t eventually arrive. It does. But the screenplay’s rarely preachy, the sermon isn’t forced, and Garner was the right choice to sell the maternal conflict central to the Miracles From Heaven story.
The former Alias star (and West Virginia native) personifies “Southern” by wearing her hair a little bigger, her heels a little bit higher, and her artificial drawl a little too thick. She plays Christy Beam, a real-life mother hen to a perfect pack of adolescent girls and a sweet, supportive blue-collar Texas husband named Kevin (Martin Henderson). Their problems are textbook. He’s opening a new business. She’s fretting over their finances. All of that gets shelved, however, when middle child Anna (Kylie Rogers), comes down with a mysterious digestive issue that doctors can’t figure out. Medical tests routinely come up inconclusive, forcing Christy and Anna to Boston and the offices of in-demand specialist, Dr. Nurko (Eugenio Derbez).
Miracles banks on you sympathizing with poor, defenseless Anna and her compassionate, confused mother. And you do. The longer Anna has to suffer, with doctors unable to deduce her condition or alleviate her pain, the more your heart goes out to the entire Beam family. Riggen might extend the girl’s suffering too far in the elongated middle section of Miracles From Heaven. At one point, young Kylie Rogers asks her mama, a fiercely protective Garner, if she can just go ahead and die so her pain can be over, and I wanted to wave the white flag because I, too, was tired of seeing the girl suffer.
Then, something miraculous happens. And I’d stop reading now if you don’t want to know the miracle of Miracles from Heaven. The Beam family’s story has been documented before, and many heading into the theaters for Miracles might know the outcome, but I didn’t, and I don’t want to ruin it here for anyone.
Still here? OK, so, Anna – home from the Boston hospital on one of her occasional breaks, climbs a tree on the family property with her older sister… and falls into the tree’s hollowed-out trunk. “As if this poor girl hasn’t been through enough!” you’ll scream at the screen. But here’s the thing. The fall cures Anna. More specifically, the act of landing on her head cures her. The doctors can’t explain it any better than they could explain the sudden onset of Anna’s digestive disease. All they know is that after the fall, she wasn’t suffering from her ailments anymore. And she isn’t suffering to this day.
If that’s the story, it truly is a miracle. Anna Beam, her parents, and even her sisters, endured great suffering while her body wrestled with a mysterious illness. And after falling down the tree, she was healed. Now, strap in, because here’s where the movie starts to push its built-in religious buttons… and where you’ll either nod in agreement (because you’re a religious person enjoying a faith-based movie) or roll your eyes (because you just wanted a weepy, Garner-led Lifetime movie-of-the-week). Anna claims she went to Heaven, and spoke with God. Patricia Riggen even shows us Heaven. It looks a lot like Pandora, from James Cameron’s Avatar.
That’s not to say the religious influence wasn’t lurking in Miracles the whole time. Mostly, it’s overt. Christy meets with her pastor (the always welcome John Carroll Lynch) to ask why a loving God would do this to her child. A wicked church member (Erica McGee) asks Christy, after Anna’s sudden healing, if the little girl was faking it the whole time – a moment that made my enraptured preview audience hiss and boo! Other times, it’s subtle. In Boston, Christy and Anna meet a too-kind waitress (played by Queen Latifah) who takes the pair under her wing, showing them around town and sitting with Christy during Anna’s lengthy hospital visits. Latifah’s name in the movie? Angela. Angel-a. Get it?
But really, that’s what you are paying for when you buy a ticket to Miracles From Heaven, isn’t it? It’s not the best movie in theaters at the moment. But in comparison to heavy-handed faith-based stories that have blazed the path for films like Miracles, this one gives us a child we can root for, a family we can support, and a stout performance by a steadfast leading lady who puts her off-screen experiences as a mother to good use… even if alternate titles for Miracles could have been Magic Tree, or How Many Horrible Things Can Happen To A 10-Year-Old Girl?!