“The incredulity is high in this film”

by Steve Pulaski

With Easter showing up a bit earlier this year, the local multiplex has once again resorted to looking like a lineup of Sunday mass topics, with The Young Messiah and now Miracles from Heaven. Despite making up the majority of believers in the United States, up until a few years ago, no studio was willing to go near faith-based property, but after the Kendrick brothers brought monstrous success to the genre, and God’s Not Dead followed in its footsteps to utterly extraordinary earnings (so extraordinary you can look for the sequel in theaters on April 1st), the market is now being recognized by more studios like Pure Flix and even mainstream Hollywood.

Miracles from Heaven was apparently a story that T.D. Jakes, with his production company, and executives at Columbia Pictures found so wonderful and potential-ridden that they had to pick it up for a wide release a week before one of the biggest Christian holidays of the year. Taking a first look at the film’s trailer, concept, and poster, it immediately looks like the equally bad sister film to Heaven is for Real, that nauseatingly saccharine mess that came out two years ago. However, while Miracles from Heaven essentially levels the playing field for being about as cloyingly mawkish as that film, it admirably tries to focus on the characters that make up the story, in addition to their relationships with one another during certain calamity.

The film, based on a true story, as you probably could’ve guessed just by the statement’s ubiquity in recent years, revolves around the Beam family, a tight-knit bunch in Burleson, Texas with Christy and Kevin (Jennifer Garner and Martin Henderson) at the helm and their three girls. The prime focus, however, is on their ten-year-old daughter Anna (Kylie Rogers), who has been having extreme stomach pain and prolific bouts of vomiting for weeks on end. Repeated doctor visits diagnose relatively mild to moderate cases of lactose intolerance and ulcers, but Christy knows in her heart that this isn’t something so simple. Call it mother’s intuition.

Miracles from Heaven
Directed by
Patricia Riggen
Cast
Jennifer Garner, Kylie Rogers, Martin Henderson
Release Date
16 March 2016
Steve’s Grade: C-

It turns out, Anna has a rare digestive disorder called pseudo-obstruction motility disorder, where the body thinks there is something obstructing the intestinal tact but there is no such blockage. It comes from the body’s inability to properly breakdown and digest food, with the only solution being for the stomach to vomit the food back up. Of course, there is no known cure, but out of desperation, Christy and Anna fly out to Boston to meet Dr. Nurko (Eugenio Derbez), a doctor at Boston Children’s Hospital who specializes in pediatric gastroenterology.

For months, Anna is sick and in constant pain, to the point where she tells her mother she’d rather be dead. Throughout the film, I couldn’t help but echo those same sentiments as I imagined myself in such a scenario. It’s hard enough to deal with excruciating, let alone recurring, pain as an adult, but when you’re a young girl, who cannot go to school, do your favorite things, or even see your family on a regular basis, the pressures weigh on you. Then when you see your parents arguing over finances and accommodations they need to make for your disease, the guilt factor plays in and you feel as if everything would be better off if you were just dead and gone.

Miracles from Heaven director Patricia Riggen (director of last year’s miner drama The 33 and screenwriter Randy Brown do a great job at conveying the helplessness that plagues both Christy and Anna throughout the entire course of the film. However, one thing that keeps both of them strong to a certain degree is their faith and connection to the Lord. While Christy’s dwindles as Anna’s situation looks bleak, Anna, her father, and her sisters keep that sort of faith all the way down to a truly terrifying moment that changes the course of Anna’s life forever.

The incredulity is high in this film, but what would you expect from a film titled Miracles from Heaven that’s also based on a true story? If this was a fictional account, I’d probably really be blasting it as an incredulous depiction of overcoming unfathomable obstacles, but being that this is a true story, that criticism is invalid. However, that doesn’t justify the film’s almost sickening emphasis on the sad and the melancholic through every scene. Even worse than sermonizing the word of God or some moral about absolute faith, Riggen and company decide to embellish every scene with a frothy musical score that practically works to extract tears and sentiment from the audience in the most unnatural way. For a 110 minute film, the result is a wearying example of what it means to really sentimentalize every little thing in movies, to the point where you imagine the film crew themselves shedding tears at the story and just wish they and the film itself would get a grip.

I ultimately wound up wishing that the film focused more on Anna’s relationship with other sick patients at the children’s hospital, or even a boy at a basketball game who selflessly sits out of a game to accompany her to the library. That would’ve made for a much more fascinating and revealing angle.

There is also a conflicting narrative here that disturbs me, and the fact that it’s glossed over so casually is also problematic. Part of Christy disassociating herself with the church comes after a group of churchgoing ladies suggest to her that Anna’s suffering may be a result of Anna or both her and Kevin sinning. The scene is sickening in the sense that it looks to emphasize one of the many reasons why so many people are so disgusted with the church – the way it casually blames victims for their own suffering and has some assuming that if their lives are good, why can’t everyone’s life be good? This is a very real issue that should infuriate Christy, and while it does for a little while, it also doesn’t stop her from eventually recommitting her life to the church. Even if you’re going to shamelessly dub Miracles from Heaven a propaganda film, which it kind of is, to be fair, talk about going against your own propaganda.

Miracles from Heaven‘s performances are all on-par with those commendable for basic melodrama that somehow bypassed being an Up TV favorite and got the privilege of a theatrical release, and the fantastical aspect Heaven is for Real chose to make a one-hundred minute film on, Miracles from Heaven chooses to make most of the third act about, which is another positive in that it doesn’t lose focus. Because it shows the real people behind this impossible story at the end, I’m not sure why they couldn’t have just gotten them to play themselves here, rather than a band of prettier, more “marketable” actors when the story would’ve more than likely benefited from a few more grains of authenticity as a result. As faith-based films go, this one definitely realizes that the human side of things is what gets it the respectable points as a film, but forgets that the mawkish and over-sentimentalized route is another route that can make one entirely forget the important aspects of the film they just saw.