Miracles from Heaven and all the images you see in this review are owned by Columbia Pictures
Directed by Patricia Riggen
These movies are just going to stop, are they? Well certainly not as long as Sony’s Jesus Department (Affirm), Roma Downey, and The Kendrick Brothers haven’t been driven out of Hollywood for being hacks. Oh who am I kidding? No one has EVER been driven out of Hollywood for being a hack. Still, these crappy religious movies are starting to look more and more like crappy regular movies now that their attracting big name talents like Jennifer Garner. Does the fact that this movie attracted an ACTUAL actor instead of one who’s only looking to be in Christian cinema (or are desperate for cash) mean that this might be one of the better films to come out of the Christian Film Revolution? Even if it is, does that mean it’s actually a GOOD movie? Let’s find out!!
The movie follows the tragic and uplifting story of the Beam family who were met with an unbelievable crisis when one of their daughters Annabel also known as Anna (Kylie Rogers) is diagnosed with an incurable intestinal disorder that leaves her unable to eat and in constant pain. For the most part, the movie is from the perspective of her mother Christy (Jennifer Garner) who takes the brunt of the action and the emotional toll by doing everything she can to get her to the best doctors and come up with ways to pay for all these expensive treatments. The trailers are a tad misleading considering that the fall from the tree that cures Anna (spoiler alert) doesn’t happen until the last twenty minutes of the movie, so it has more in common with something like 90 Minutes in Heaven than Heaven is For Real, considering the majority of the movie is about the suffering rather than the aftermath of the divine intervention. Still, is it an inspiring and heartwarming story BEFORE we get to the Deus Ex Machina? Does Jennifer Garner actually manage to elevate this material above its very simple premise? Couldn’t God have come up with a way to heal her WITHOUT giving her a concussion!?
This movie frustrates me to no end, but I think it accomplishes its goals just fine. Does the religious stuff bother me in here? Yeah, but it’s not as CONSTANT or as AGRRESSIVE as something you’d get from Kirk Cameron or the Pure Flix crew. Even so, it’s still aiming for that market directly and while its message is SUBTLER, it’s not much different in terms of tone or theological resonance. On top of that, I just felt it didn’t justify the sensitive subject matter that it was dealing with. You can have a movie about people suffering; children dying; what have you, but for me it needs to be balanced out by something else. Think about Holocaust movies. Schindler’s List is a masterpiece helmed by Steven Spielberg and is all about bad things happening to people who do not deserve it. You want to know why people remember that movie instead of Uwe Bole’s movie about the subject (Auschwitz from 2011)? Well one of them has fantastic actors being directed by an amazing director, it has stunning cinematography, it has a script with nuance and character, and it even knows to throw in some dark humor every now and again. It has resonance because it uses the shocking imagery as a tool; a backdrop to what the real point of the story is. Auschwitz on the other hand is nothing BUT shocking imagery with no real point behind it other than I guess German teens aren’t familiar with the utter tragedy the Holocaust was (the scenes from Auschwitz are intercut with interviews of students). That’s what I feel about this movie. In the great context of this movie and the studio behind it, I get why this movie was made, but in and of itself I just didn’t feel like going down this journey into utter bleakness and coming back out on top was of particular note or consequence.
That’s probably a personal issue though as there definitely IS a theme here; it’s just for something that I do not ascribe to. It’s all about that faith in Jesus if you want to make it through hard times. This little girl went to heaven, came back down, and was cured by God because he works in mysterious ways. Go to Church, and by the grace of God, good things might come your way. For most of the movie though, it’s not really about pushing that message as much as it is simply a characteristic of this family and as a symbolic barometer for Christy’s state of mind and deterioration over the tragedy that struck her family (she loses her faith as her child gets sicker). Hell, it’s downright enlightened compared to the likes of War Room, especially when it gets to the parts about not forcing others to believe what you believe. Unfortunately the movie doesn’t stay on this path, and while those less than judgmental words are coming out of the characters’ mouths, the framing and storytelling techniques used by the filmmaker make it very clear what side of the fence they’re on. When it goes full on Jesus mode towards the end, it ends up feeling like that conciliatory tone towards the non-believers out there (or those who believe in other things) in the first two thirds was just a cover to fall back on when they go full on JESUS IS THE WAY at the end. It makes all the prior scenes where Jennifer Garner and Martin Henderson consciously try not to push their beliefs on others feel disingenuous. The movie even goes so far as to use an Albert Einstein quote which feels like it’s trying to court the “scientific skeptics” (or whatever the hell they think non-believers are) over to their side. The quote in question by the way is “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle”. Personally, I prefer one of his OTHER quotes about God and belief (“I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals doings Himself in the lawful harmony of the world, not in a God who concerns Himself with the fate and the doings of mankind”). I’m probably reading too much into the religious aspect of this and honestly entered that theater with a chip on my shoulder considering what other religious movies I’ve had to see recently. On the surface, it appears to be one of the better uses of faith from a film language standpoint (and my criteria for a “good” use of it being “non-propagandist”), but I still feel uneasy about WHAT it’s trying to say even if they say it more tactfully than most. Winning the lottery (or in this case having your child’s medical condition go away) is a joyously statistical improbability, but it is not the same thing as a miracle. This movie wants you to believe otherwise. Just to be clear, it’s not just saying that these characters believed it happened; it’s trying to convince you the audience that it happened. Had it been the former, then I wouldn’t have had a problem with it, but imparting its message about God is a goal of this movie, therefore makes it worth judging and being critical about about.
If we take out the religious aspects and just look at the film on its own, well there’s just not much there. It’s competently shot, decently acted (Jennifer Gardner and the doctor played by Eugenio Derbez are the highlights), and manages to eke out some feels simply because of the subject matter, but everything feels so stagey and scripted. The kids are pretty much perfect movie children who always act with kindness and love their parents (including the teenager), and only MIDLY get out of hand during all this hardship which they IMMEDIATELY feel sorry about afterwards. It all just feels too wholesome and takes away from this being based on a true story which means that the “trueness” aspect of this in the marketing is reduced to another way for them to push the miraculous nature of Christianity. In terms of actors, Queen Latifa in particular gets the shaft in this movie considering she’s railroaded into the Mystical Magical Negro role as a waitress in a Boston restaurant who takes a shine to Anna and Christy and decides to take them out on the town. That’s it. All she does here is take the two of them on a day trip where she shares her wisdom and street smarts (ugh…) to the dying girl and the slowly unraveling mother; proving ONCE AGAIN that the role for black women in Hollywood is to help and support white people.
Another problem I had here was the way the health care system (and those working it it) are treated in this movie. The first twenty minutes is all about how doctors are unfeeling and incompetent who need a swift kick in the ass from a mother who is “very sure” their child is sick. I have no idea if this is what happened in the real life story, but it feels very ham handed and is definitely one of those messages that the movie is trying to tactfully and carefully impart, though Doctor Dudebro with his gelled spikes is pretty on the nose.
Even when we get past that where the doctors are starting to become competent, there’s still the issue of trying to get in touch with a specialist who may be able to help Jennifer Gardner’s daughter. She’s on a waiting list that’s going to take a long time (a waiting list filed with children just as sick as her daughter), so what does she do? She flies to the Children’s Hospital in Boston where the guy works (without an appointment) and unloads ALL of her shit onto the receptionist who has no power to do anything, and yet has to turn away a dying child because there are fifty other dying children who are already scheduled. I’ve never had to deal with anything like THAT, but I’ve been on the receiving end of someone who’s very upset and REALLY wants that special treatment. It’s a shitty situation to be in, but the movie’s narrow scope doesn’t feel the need to show that aspect of it, and would instead just watch as the receptionist breaks down at the utter unfairness of… this doctor not having clones of himself I guess. Oh, and just to be clear, I haven’t found anything to indicate something like this actually happened in the real story* which makes it even worse to insinuate this kind of behavior works, or that acting this way doesn’t have any consequences. The movie has no interest in conveying any consequences that had happened to those other kids she bumped in line which only annoys me more the way that scene is portrayed in the movie. Jumping ahead of others isn’t a problem! I’m sure all those kids they bumped ahead of are FINE. Even if they’re not, I guess their parents didn’t love them enough or else THEY would have yelled a receptionist too!
For its intended audience, I will say that this is at least of quality which is more than can be said for War Room and its ilk. There are actual actors in here instead of preachers pretending to be, there’s cinematography that looks okay instead of bare bones, and it will fill their sense of self-satisfaction as prayer is tool to solving everything. I’ve seen this story done way better in the past, particularly an episode from the second season of House (Autopsy) that managers to be smart, character driven, and somewhat profound, while still being fun and engaging due to Hugh Laurie’s endless charisma. The actually family this is based on seems nice enough, and unlike the Burpos who started a Church based on their son’s journey to heaven, the Beams haven’t gone THAT route yet so props to them I guess. Still, it’s hard to ignore the fact that despite this being a pretty simple story, Sony felt the need to sink thirteen million dollars into the telling of it. All I’m saying is that If Anna Beam had been Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, agnostic, or anything else, this movie wouldn’t have been made. I wouldn’t recommend this movie in the least as I had zero enjoyment while watching it, but on pure technical criteria… you can do worse I guess.
*On the hospital visit specifically: I did reach out to Christy Beam (at least her twitter account) and this is the response I got.
Not really a confirmation either way but if information is brought to my attention, I will provide an update.
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