‘Miracles From Heaven’: Film Review

Courtesy of Sony Pictures Entertainment
Sure to please its target audience.
3/16/2016

Jennifer Garner toplines a drama about family and faith that may actually be able to preach beyond the choir.

The inspirational memoir Miracles From Heaven transfers to the big screen as a wholesome, crowd-pleasing drama, one whose subject is faith and gratitude. The tone is frequently more searching than self-satisfied, and the harrowing medical crisis that drives the family story gives it the nonreligious urgency to preach beyond the choir. So too does Jennifer Garner’s down-to-earth lead performance as Christy Beam, a ferociously dedicated mom doing her best to keep it together in trying circumstances.

Churchy but not too churchy, with only a couple of outright mentions of Jesus and just a soupçon of condescension toward those who Don’t Believe, this is, in some ways, basic New Age-friendly self-help delivered through a high-stakes narrative. Opening midweek to get a jump on Easter break family audiences (though the story’s medical aspects might be disturbing to young children), the Columbia release looks primed for a celebratory box-office bow, much like its producing team’s previous faith-based release, Heaven Is for Real.

Working with a better script (by Randy Brown) than she had for The 33, director Patricia Riggen taps into the same sense of spiritual wonder that characterized some of the earlier movie’s more potent moments. But in this case, she and her regular d.p. (and husband), Checco Varese, cast the visions of awe in a pastel palette that reflects a child’s point of view. There’s the awe-tinged light of an aquarium, perfect cumulus clouds and storybook trees, one of which will figure prominently in the story. Most effective, there’s the partly animated climactic sequence that expresses a young girl’s experience of heaven.

That girl is Anna Beam, a wise-beyond-her-years 10-year-old Texan who’s exceptionally well played by Kylie Rogers. As her parents, Garner and Martin Henderson have the down-home, all-American air of a former homecoming king and queen who are devoted to their three girls. Kevin has just opened a veterinary clinic, leaving them financially strapped and Christy stressed about it, while he only shrugs his sturdy trust-in-God shoulders. He’s a rock, and a somewhat blank one. What he calls his faith others would classify as what-me-worry nonchalance, and it’s easy to understand why Christy loses her faith for a while, especially after Anna, their middle daughter, becomes desperately ill.

But Christy never loses her sense of purpose or tenacity. She refuses to accept glib diagnoses of lactose intolerance and acid reflux for Anna, who’s in constant pain, her stomach distended. Pushing for real answers, she gets them, and they’re devastating: Anna has a rare and incurable intestinal disorder that makes it impossible to digest food.

Set against the fluorescent chill of emergency rooms, Garner’s fury is a force of nature but never over the top. Riggen and Varese signal the terror of the situation through shots of empty hospital corridors — a harsh contrast to the warmth of the Beams’ white clapboard house. (In both cases, David R. Sandefur’s production design is effectively low-key.) Refusing to sit patiently on the months-long waiting list of Dr. Nurko (Eugenio Derbez), a leading specialist at Boston Children’s Hospital, Christy flies cross-country with Anna, where the kindness of strangers — and an experimental drug — offer hope.

Brown (Trouble With the Curve) provides obvious comic relief in the aptly named Angela (Queen Latifah), a Boston waitress who takes Christy and Anna under her wing. Latifah’s unfussy turn as the spunky good Samaritan almost saves her scenes from being cloying, though her presence in the story feels truncated, some of it sliced and diced into an unfortunate and mildly cheesy montage.

The screenplay is at its weakest in the Boston sequences, and Riggen has a tendency to push too hard. A hospital pillow fight is an especially unconvincing stab at laughter-through-the-tears. Lovely at first but quickly overstated is Anna’s communion with a Monet canvas at a Boston museum, a moment abetted by Carlo Siliotto’s swelling score, which is more effective in its darker, suspenseful passages than when it’s plucking heartstrings. Derbez is, by contrast, successful at conveying Nurko’s combination of serious physician and performing clown for his young patients.

With Christy and Anna’s regular follow-up trips to Boston, the story sidelines Kevin, 13-year-old athlete Abbie (Brighton Sharbino) and Taylor Swift-adoring 6-year-old Adelynn (Courtney Fansler). The movie is essentially concerned with the relationship between Christy and Anna, whose special bond is signaled in their first scene together. Though Rogers must deliver some of the screenplay’s smuggest and most cringeworthy lines, her performance is emotionally compelling. And it’s hard to imagine another Hollywood star who would be as persuasive as Texas native Garner is in this change-of-pace role.

That Christy’s spiritual well-being rests on her return to church is one of the key places where the film’s potentially broad appeal narrows — even if that church features lively rock numbers (performed by Christian band Third Day) and a relatively nonjudgmental pastor (John Carroll Lynch). Beam and the filmmakers interpret Anna’s sudden recovery, when it arrives, as proof of God, and they emphasize the inadequacy of science to explain. Among those who trust reason over faith, they’re not likely to change any minds, but they could touch a few hearts.

Distributor: TriStar
Production companies: Columbia Pictures presents in association with Affirm Films a Roth Films/T.D. Jakes/Franklin Entertainment production

Cast: Jennifer Garner, Kylie Rogers, Martin Henderson, John Carroll Lynch, Eugenio Derbez, Queen Latifah, Brighton Sharbino, Courtney Fansler, Kelly Collins Lintz, Bruce Altman, Hannah Alligood
Director: Patricia Riggen
Screenwriter: Randy Brown, based on the book by Christy Beam
Producers: Joe Roth, T.D. Jakes, DeVon Franklin
Executive producers: Matthew Hirsch, Derrick Williams, Zack Roth
Director of photography: Checco Varese
Production designer: David R. Sandefur
Costume designer: Mary Jane Fort 
Editor: Emma E. Hickox
Composer: Carlo Siliotto
Casting: Sheila Jaffe, Justine Hempe

Rated PG, 109 minutes

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