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Miracles from Heaven (2016)
Directed By: Patricia Riggen
Starrring: Jennifer Garner, Kylie Rogers, Martin Henderson
Rated: PG for Thematic Material, Including Accident and Medical Images
Running Time: 1 H 49 M
TMM: 3 out of 5 Stars
Strengths: Acting, Portrayal of Christian Life, Non-Preachy Scenes, Heightening of Stakes
Weaknesses: Marketing, Manufactured Happiness, Preachy Scenes
Christy and Kevin Beam are living the American Evangelical dream, until their daughter, Anna becomes debilitatingly sick. With moral support from her husband, Christy and Anna together, face doctors, church neighbors, a potentially deadly illness, and an absent God during their darkest hours.
I was dreading this movie. On the surface, it is everything I dislike about Christian film. By what it emphasized, the marketing made me think that I was in for a film where the struggles of life, while real, would be quickly gotten through, and the film would be mainly focusing on what happens after God has answered our prayers and we refuse to hide our light under a bushel. Granted I had not seen much of the marketing, I tend to avoid trailers and hype, and I’ve been burned by Christian film more times than I can count.
So let’s just say my expectations were low.
This film surprised me though. That isn’t to say it’s all good, but I would definitely take the pile of films put out by Christian studios and imprints and put this one near the top of the stack. It certainly is more deserving of a theatrical release than most.
Why is this film better than so many other Christian films? I would say because it is first and foremost a film. There are sections of this movie that feel like it has almost forgotten that it should, as is typical in faith based movies, be preaching every step of its way through the story. It still preaches at times, and that’s to be expected from a church based storytelling culture, but it does so in a concentrated burst, not in a pervasive way.
Part of the reason for this is that the main character Christy (Jennifer Garner, “Juno”)feels very real and deep. You get the sense that she cares very deeply about her daughter and is really struggling with the idea of a God who isn’t answering her prayers for healing, but on the contrary, seems to be sending more bad news on top of bad news. Her struggles are not small, and it takes more than a pep talk from her husband, her pastor, or even her daughter to help her through her grief and pain.
Jennifer Garner is not an actress I particularly care for. In many films she comes off as a little stuck up, wooden, and unrelatable to me. Here however, she does a remarkable job. There were actually moments especially between her and Kylie Rogers’ (“Collateral Beauty”) Anna that made me tear up a little. Their pain and fear and love are profoundly felt in some very difficult scenes. The acting from both Garner and Rogers is what sells a lot of this movie. It hinges on your belief that these people care about each other so much that when one feels pain the other does as well and they totally pull that off.
They are aided in this by a Director who doesn’t shy away from showing the suffering these characters go through. Rather than sanitize and hide the pain from an audience that may be used to cleaned up versions of life’s challenges, the filmmaker shows a little girl have tubes forced down her nasal passages and writhing in horrific pain. It is difficult to watch but if the director had said to herself “I can’t put this in, it might scare children,” the impact that those events have on Anna’s mother would have been all but lost.
This is a great strength of this film. It is really honest about a lot of “Christian” life. There is fear, hope, sadness, and joy, all of which is external AND internal in origin. Many films which take a look at faith fail in this regard. They tend to leave the impression that struggles are external in origin and may challenge the faith of a believer slightly but never truly threaten it down to its core.
In real life believers go through stretches that last years, maybe entire lives, without finding resolution to their struggles and questions. Those struggles don’t just come from without but from within ourselves. In this film Garner’s character is already struggling with worry and trust before her daughter gets sick. Her daughter’s illness simply brings issues already there, to the surface.
The film is also pretty good about how it portrays church. It doesn’t show church as a place full of the most wonderful people in the world. Some of the people are great, others are the source of so much pain that it can drive you away from ever attending again.
It is this honesty that many Christian films are lacking. Even as a Christian, in most films I look at the struggles of the main character, their faith, their family life, and their enthusiasm as totally outside my experience and false. They do things I would never do and almost always react in ways I never would. More honesty like this is needed in Faith based film.
The last big positive in this film is the writing, specifically, the story structure. In many films, the journey the character goes on is very ‘samey’ (for lack of a better word). In a movie like this the temptation is to have the character just get hammered over and over again with bad news, or, conversely, just always feel like everything is going to be ok no matter what happens to them. This film straddles the fence well, allowing the audience through the characters, to feel like things are going to be ok, then devastated when they aren’t, then hopeful this treatment will work, and crushed when it doesn’t, and so on.
This allows you to really feel the back and forth that we experience every day in our own lives and makes the film relatable and entertaining rather than one note.
So that’s the good. How about the bad? Well, unfortunately while “Miracles From Heaven” shies away from being too preachy most of the time, there are a couple of scenes, especially at the end that are really heavy on the ‘this-is-the-lesson-you-should-take-away-from-the-film,’ sort of filmmaking you expect from Christian movies.
I actually wish they would have ended the movie about ten minutes earlier. The film had already said what it wanted to say and it had wrapped up the plot nicely. It just hadn't hit you over the head with it yet. The rest is just the church’s tendency to not trust an audience to ‘read’ a film properly.
At times the director flirts with actually using visuals to tell the story but the film ultimately forgets that it is a visual medium. Almost everything in this film is spoken.
When Anna is unconscious, she has a dream but we don’t see the dream till she relates it to her parents. The visuals for the dream are good and could have stood alone but instead we have her voiceover explaining the whole dream to her Mom and Dad. Why the explanation? We can see. No one is lost and confused about what is happening.
Why have her talk over it? Because we can’t let audiences see something and not have it explained to them or they might misinterpret it. This is a huge problem. Filmmakers and the communities which call for films to be made reflecting their views must learn to trust their audiences and respect their intelligence or the films they make will never be respected and considered in the same breath as regular film. It will always be relegated to a side conversation and compared to other Faith based film rather than all film.
There is a lot of fat to be trimmed in this movie. Queen Latifah’s (“Chicago”) role as the waitress Angela is fine but totally unnecessary, the same can be said of the sub plot with Anna’s sister and her soccer dreams, and the bookending voiceovers have got to go. This film actually starts by asking through a voiceover “What is a miracle. The dictionary defines a miracle as…”
What? That is crazy. It is a cliche’ that the worst speeches and essays start with the dictionary definition of a word and this film starts off by eliciting a good ol’ eye roll from anyone with any knowledge of writing by employing this tired tool of bad writers.
The last negative, and this isn’t the fault of the movie, is the marketing. All of the marketing gives away the end of the movie. I would have liked to have seen this film not knowing what happens but it’s in every trailer and every discussion on TV about this movie. I was actually surprised because the event is referred to in the name of the film and in so much of the advertising that I figured it happened pretty early in the movie. It doesn’t, thank goodness, but this doesn’t change the fact that they are doing a disservice to the film by marketing it this way. It would be like calling Star Wars, “Luke Blows Up the Death Star.” It might be accurate but it sure deflates the tension of the climactic scenes of the film.
Finally, a positive I almost forgot to mention. This film passes the Bechdel test with flying colors. I know many of my feminist friends won’t see this film but in an industry dominated by men and attention being paid to this inequality more and more, we really should do what they can to support a film directed by a woman, with a cast headed up by a woman, supported by women, and dealing with issues that have nothing to do with winning a man or being rescued by one. Especially when the film is actually good.
Like most movies, I could talk all day about this film so I’m going to have to cut myself off here and say, I think it was good. By Faith film standards it’s great. I wouldn’t recommend it to the average movie goer or film connoisseur but if you are the sort of church goer who has been lamenting serious treatment of faith issues in cinema this movie is a step in the right direction.
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