MIRACLES FROM HEAVEN (Movie Review)

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***1/2 out of ****
Rated PG

for thematic material, including accident and medical images
Released: March 16, 2016
Runtime: 109 minutes
Director: Patricia Riggen
Starring: Jennifer Garner, Kylie Rogers, Martin Henderson, Eugenio Derbez, John Carroll Lynch, Queen Latifah

Fueled by a deeply wrought – and at times emotionally wrenching – powerhouse performance from Jennifer Garner, Miracles From Heaven isn’t simply the best faith-based movie since The Passion Of The Christ; it easily boasts that niche market’s biggest crossover appeal to date.

Things don’t start so promisingly. With an intro that plays like a soft-peddle pander to church groups (complete with a feel-good Third Day praise & worship set), Miracles From Heaven first appears to be nothing more than a high-end Hallmark movie with a strong Evangelical streak. But once a health crisis hits, this surprisingly intense family drama goes against the grain of its warm-fuzzy label and offers up a challenging – even grueling – test of faith.

Miracles From Heaven is a visceral depiction of every parent’s worst nightmare: a healthy child suddenly stricken with a life-threatening illness – and one that quickly escalates. There’s no known cure, and a parent can only stand bedside as the child suffers.

Straining the test even further in this true story? Countless prayers go unanswered. Despite the film’s title, there’s nary a miracle in sight for almost the entire running time. When one arrives, it comes in the form of an apparent terrifying tragedy. Miracles From Heaven is not your typical milquetoast Christian movie. It’s not buoyed by an “everything’s going to be okay” sentimentality. At its deepest level, the film’s thematic – and maternal – heart cry is more existential, going beyond asking “why?” to the hopeless void of God-forsaken abandonment.

With a narrative arc this heavily burdened, what makes Miracles From Heaven so immensely worthwhile? Because it’s the story of a mother being an absolute gladiator for her child.

It’s for that reason Miracles From Heaven should be a shared experience for women and mothers everywhere, who will bond over the nurturing, unrelenting heart that beats at this film’s core. It should also be shared by families, to help them cherish what we all too often take for granted.

Based on Christy Beam’s 2015 memoir of the same name, Miracles From Heaven tells the story of how Beam’s 12-year-old daughter Annabel fell gravely ill to a rare digestive disorder. The struggle unfolds with pain, confusion, grief, and near-death scares. But it’s also layered with the small yet life-saving graces that rescue people from the brink. And sometimes, those graces have to be fought for.

Many parents, even those whose kids haven’t faced such a dire prognosis, will recognize the early stages of this trial: a child is suspiciously ill, a doctor runs tests and assures it’s nothing serious, and yet the mother can’t shake her unease. She asks for more tests, the doctor becomes dismissive (even annoyed), but the mother knows her child better than that doctor does. Common sense would even seem to challenge the doctor’s assurances, and yet it’s like pulling teeth to be heard and taken seriously. For Christy Beam, that maddening yet all-too-familiar pattern nearly cost her her daughter’s life.

When the true gravity of Annabel’s condition is discovered, it sends Christy on a desperate search for help that will require everything she’s got. Sensitively observed, we also see how it tests the bonds of marriage and family, and how such a destabilizing event can quickly cause a loving couple to start talking past each other, and grow apart. But these are peripheral elements to the central story of a mother who won’t give up – even when her daughter wants to – as the agonizing effects mount and take their toll.

And it’s in this mother that the film finds its greatest strength: Jennifer Garner. She may not wield a physical toughness, martial arts style, like she did in Alias, but Garner still brings the same level of fight, passion, and conviction to a mother who will not waiver, even as her faith does. Garner takes a good but not particularly unique role and turns it into an acting showcase. (A nearby patron at my preview whispered frankly, “Give that girl an Oscar already.”) Why Jennifer Garner isn’t one of the most sought after A-list actresses in the movies today really does boggle the mind.

The other feminine force of nature at work here is director Patricia Riggen. An Hispanic filmmaker who expanded beyond her small family portraits with The 33 last fall (another true story, about the 2010 Chilean miners rescue), Riggen has quickly become a director to watch. Her gift is taking material that could easily descend into cheap melodrama and keeping it grounded in credible realism, even as she allows intense emotions to rise.

Riggen creates scenes that are absolutely (and necessarily) devastating, while never feeling as if she’s exploiting the subject matter (or its subjects) for crass emotional manipulation. She also weaves in artful interludes (such as Annabel’s entrancing meditation on Monet’s expansive “Water Lilies” canvas) that eventually loop back around in spectacular, inspired fashion. Riggen has made a very good film here, and it shows her potential for a great one.

Riggen also approaches theology with a deft touch, which is to say she wisely avoids a definitive theological framework. Yes, the faith (and culture) here is unabashedly Christian, but acts of God do not follow a clear cause and effect, nor are they doled out as rewards from a Divine meritocracy. They are left to mystery, and received with profound gratitude. The pastor provides honest yet wise counsel, but never pat answers or Christian-ese slogans. And for those worried this may promote a simplistic form of faith healing, well, the opposite is true. On the contrary, it indicts Pharisaical attitudes that question the Beam family’s faith, and faith walk.

The film’s not without its shortcomings. It does self-consciously cater to Evangelical sensibilities at times (that opening church scene – authentically rendered though it may be – will prove an initial hurdle for viewers foreign to the subculture). Queen Latifah, who adds some necessary comic relief and moral support at just the right time (as much for us as the Beams), is short-changed with a role that clearly saw a bulk of its screen time drop to the cutting room floor.

But the film’s strengths transcend its obvious weaknesses. Along with Garner, Kylie Rogers impresses as the afflicted daughter Annabel. She does much more than “play sick” and embodies the torment of Annabel’s condition. Her candid conversation with a fellow child patient is one of the film’s most moving. As the pediatric specialist Dr. Nurko, Eugenio Derbez exerts a sincere, easy charm with Annabel, but then effortlessly shifts to more serious realities.

There’s several courageous, and honest, messages in Miracles From Heaven. One is that everyone doesn’t get healed, and another is that gracious reprieves often seem applied without consistent justice. We don’t all get the miracles we pray for, but nor are miracles simply defined by the physical. Miracles also include Kindness. Generosity. Forgiveness. Sacrifice. Love. These are miracles too. That may sound corny, and coming from most movies it would be. But not here. This movie earns that message, that ideal, that belief. Miracles From Heaven doesn’t merely affirm faith. It builds it.

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