Tuesday, March 22, 2016

"Miracles from Heaven"

 2.5 / 5 

Consider what we know: Miracles from Heaven is "from the producers who brought you Heaven is for Real." The child who told a very similar story, and whose family profited handsomely for the tale, later recanted the allegation.  This new movie goes to great lengths to explain what a terrible financial burden is carried by the family at its core.

Putting all of these things together, I leave it to you to determine whether a) the movie was made with only one audience in mind; b) anyone is stretching the truth; or c) the financial windfall of selling your book to a company who will turn it into a movie -- one with fairly big Hollywood stars, no less -- is inherently anything other than remarkably fortuitous.

It's difficult not to be cynical about Miracles from Heaven because it's so specifically, intentionally made for and, at times, pandering to its Christian audience, intentionally and almost gleefully shutting out those who don't share the faith.

Even its discussion about the nature of faith, and the importance of having it, proceed from the assumption that losing it is a temporary affliction, one that can be remedied by a simple recognition in the beauty and wonder of life as presented each Sunday in church.

Interestingly, there are moments when it looks as if Miracles from Heaven might actually dare to head in a different direction, might acknowledge that singing Christian pop songs and dressing up to listen to the pastor every Sunday could fail to solve all of life's problems, that maybe, just maybe, life is a random jumble that is not fair, makes no sense, and leaves some people holding the short end of the stick.

Christy Beam, a real Texan mother played here by Jennifer Garner, is the woman whose faith is tested, not once but twice -- first, when her middle child, Anna (Kylie Rogers) begins suffering from a mysterious digestive ailment.  After multiple mis-diagnoses, Christy and her country-singer-good-looking husband Kevin (Martin Henderson) finally get the news that Anna has a rare, potentially deadly ailment whose name I would never, ever be able to remember.

Anna's timing simply could not be worse, as Christy and Kevin have mortgaged their beautiful ranch home to the hilt so he can open his own veterinary practice, and they have no money left.  This, it's important to point out, is the kind of movie where it's never, ever once suggested that Christy find a job, because she has a job at home, caring for the girls and the dogs, and that's what her job should be.

Their churchgoing friends, who, we learn at a sun-dappled barbecue, are all white and straight, surprisingly don't come through with donations and plates of food.  Christian charity, or the lack of it, is never discussed in this movie.

Christy and Kevin don't know how they're going to make ends meet as the bills for Anna's medical care continue to mount.  He tells her to have faith, they'll make it somehow.  She says, rather practically, that his advice isn't all that helpful.

They spend tens of thousands of dollars so Christy and Anna fly from Texas to Boston for bi-weekly treatments from a world-renowned specialist who is booked for nine months solid.  There, incongruously, they meet a big, boisterous waitress played by Queen Latifah who becomes their BFF after two minutes. They have a fun, wacky interlude with a fun, wacky adventure, then the doctor calls, because Christy's plucky and tenacious spirit has insisted that her daughter should be seen.

In one of the movie's only surprises, Anna doesn't get better.  The medicines don't work.  Everyone' just about given up all hope, and then, as the movie proudly reveals in every single trailer and TV commercial, Anna falls from a tree, and somehow, she's miraculously cured, just in time of the movie to wrap up with a lovely (no, really, that's not at all sarcastic, it is lovely) homily in which Christy talks about how miracles surround us every day.

Her wrap-up speech bears a lot of resemblance to Hugh Grant's opening monologue in Love, Actually, where he talks about love, actually, being all around if you look, and Christy says miracles are everywhere, if you just see them for what they are.

She has no explanations for what made her little girl seem to come back from the dead, though the little girl does -- she met God, and God told her she wasn't ready to go to Heaven yet, so he sent her home and made sure she was healed.  Smartly, Christy at least openly wonders why it was that her beautiful little child from a wealthy suburb was spared when other, less fortunate people suffer.  It's a fair question.

And it's the kind of question that Miracles from Heaven has its characters come right out and ask without giving any answers, assuming, I guess, that the asking in and of itself will placate critics.  Some the questions it asks -- like what to do when religious faith falters, when, as Christy says, "I can't even pray anymore" -- are noble ones, but the movie has no real interest in asking them, or even engaging in a serious dialogue.

Miracles from Heaven assumes that all problems will be solved with the help of a very specific, very Christian God.  It does not ask whether the outcome would be the same in another religion, or whether someone who had no religious convictions might experience the same results.

When I wrote about Heaven is for Real, I mentioned the great, terrifying movie The Exorcist, and it is a movie that went through my mind again while watching Miracles from Heaven.  It isn't God who makes his presence known in The Exorcist, it's the devil, and he does so in a household that does not practice religion.  Evil comes into the lives of a young girl and her mother and offers them a test of spiritual faith that is harrowing and difficult.  It is through the testing of a lack of faith that the power of religion is upheld.

Miracles from Heaven offers no moment that is particularly harrowing, and never once questions the underlying faith of the family at its center, even when Christy says words fraught with doubt; they are not actually doubter's words, but words of one who thinks maybe doubting should be an option.

Still, when things get really, really bad, when things could not possibly be worse, Christy falls to her knees and begins reciting the Lord's Prayer as the music swells -- and it all plays out in dramatic slow-motion, because restraint is not a trait much known to the makers of films like these, and because Christy's acquiescence to prayer is the emotional climax of the movie: She has come around, she has seen the light (OK, it's technically her daughter who sees the light, but, you get it.)

All in all, though, here's the thing: Heaven is for Real was a horrible movie, a film that had no purpose for being, a movie that made its central question look trivial and not-serious.

Miracles from Heaven contains just enough lip-service to the issue of doubt that it is frequently interesting, sometimes even more than that.  There are over-the-top moments of eye-rolling silliness, to be sure.  There are moments when the extreme earnestness of Miracles from Heaven borders on being a religious Airplane!  But it's not playing things for laughs.  Those stereotypes, those caricatures, those age-old scenes inside a hospital ("I'm not leaving until you tell me what's wrong with her!") are the real deal, and it's a huge credit to Garner that most of these come off so well.

She and Kylie Rogers have real chemistry as mother and daughter facing the challenge together.  And that final monologue -- which effective recasts some of the movie's odder moments -- is affecting.

Relatively compact at about an hour and 50 minutes, it could have played out as a 50-minute TV docudrama and kept largely the same elements -- including the golden-hued outdoor cinematography and the core message of faith -- but cut back on some of the extraneous exposition.

Miracles from Heaven isn't a bad film, and for anyone who really wants to understand the mindset of much of the country -- the same mindset that leads us to many of our current political choices, particularly on the Republican side -- it might be worth seeing.  It could help explain the Trump-iness of modern Christianity as a whole: Why, when one little boy admits he made it all up in order to sell books and make a lot of money, he's not decried as a liar, and the system not only doesn't fall apart, it gets stronger.

The promise, the message, the faith is stronger than the evidence at hand.  That's impressive faith, really.  It is.  Even when someone admits it's all made up, faith pushes through.  No one has said or even implied that Miracles from Heaven is made up.  And based on the reaction of those in the audience the night I saw it, even if the whole thing were exposed as a sham, it wouldn't matter.  The message is still the same, and it's the message alone that people want to hear.

Viewed March 21, 2016 -- Valley Plaza 15


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