“Miracles From Heaven”

LOUISA:   2 STARS   MATT:  2 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

“Miracles From Heaven” is surprisingly well directed and well acted, putting it a cut above your average faith-based film fare. It’s as melodramatic and preachy as you’d expect, but at its center is a pandering, uplifting story that should play extremely well with its core religious audience. There’s nothing objectionable here — the movie delivers a wholesome, clean, modest night at the movies — but be forewarned that this sappy Christian crowd pleaser will be a tough sell for secular audiences.

It’s a gross understatement to accuse this melodramatic film of ‘preaching to the choir.’ A good portion of the film takes place inside a church (with a hip preacher and a slick rock band, of course), making me feel like I was attending a Sunday service instead of watching a movie. I want to be entertained, not stuck in a 2 hour sermon! The sad thing is that this would make a pretty decent Lifetime movie of the week if it wasn’t overloaded with all the Jesus-y junk. At its core is a story of a family dealing with a horrible crisis, a story that has the power to transcend crossover audiences. Ultimately the film fails miserably in its handling of the subject matter.

So just how doctrinal is it? Let’s start with the unintentionally laughable opening sequence: you’ve got your hard working, non-threateningly shirtless, sexy daddy; three cute little girls playing in mud puddles in their “Sunday school dresses;” close-ups of crucifix necklaces; several rapid-fire mentions of Bible readings, church and the like. A joke about how “my friend says Hell is in California” got the biggest sincere laughs from my audience (that tells you all you need to know).

The movie’s message is that everything will be fine as long as you pray, pray, and pray some more. If you aren’t getting what you want, you aren’t praying hard enough. This dangerous notion is driven hard, over and over and over again. It’s also funny how the movie glosses over the serious, real questions. When mom Christy Beam (Jennifer Garner) stands up in church to address the congregation with a rousing speech, she touches on the idea as to why her child was cured and others are left to suffer. How does she answer? With the frequent Christian cop-out of “I don’t know.” The movie is absolutely fine to leave it at that. Scenes like this are exactly why many thinking people can’t stomach faith-based entertainment. 

Movies like this promote exclusivity simply because they exist. The supposedly “true” story on which its based sounds mostly like a bunch of malarkey, but its imagined retelling here comes across as nothing more than a recruitment video for evangelical Christianity. It’s offensive and does the religion more of a disservice in the eyes of a nonbeliever. The movie portrays Christianity as the only way (a child states that “not everyone’s going to believe, but they’ll get there when they get there”), has characters suggest that a child became terminally ill due to the family’s “sins” (to the film’s credit they do call them out for this), and advocates praying as a legitimate way to heal a human being (newsflash: it isn’t)! In the middle of the big child-trapped-in-a-tree rescue scene (itself laughable), the firemen stop to pray, making me want to blurt out “quit praying and do your job!” The weight placed on the importance and effectiveness of prayer in this film isn’t just ridiculous, it’s downright terrifying.

As in other faith-based dramas, the highly educated (in this case, doctors) are portrayed as goofy buffoons (Eugenio Derbez) or condescending, uncaring jerks. At least the atheist who shows up isn’t portrayed as a complete jackass, but — spoiler alert — he does sort of “find the power of faith” by the end. I do have to mention the unexpectedly admirable performances from genuinely talented Kylie Rogers (as the sick child Anna) and the immensely likable Brighton Sharbino (as sister Abbie). Queen Latifah charms in her very minor supporting role as a friendly waitress. And although her performance was brimming with tear-filled pain and honesty, I ultimately felt sorry for Jennifer Garner. She’s an adept actress giving some truly heartfelt work here, but I kept imagining that I was hearing wooshing sounds in the background: the sound of her career being flushed down the toilet.

If you love Jesus then you’ll probably love this movie. But for me, it’s a miracle I was able to sit through it ’til the end.

MATT SAYS:

If you know me, you know I’m not part of the target audience for “Miracles from Heaven.” If you are a member of the target audience, this movie will likely be right up your alley.

For the most part, “Miracles from Heaven” is a rather bland and unremarkable movie-of-the-week that would have found a happy home on the Hallmark Channel. What distinguishes it from those films is its subject matter and rather heavy-handed Christian message. Faith in Jesus is what it’s selling, and miracles are the engine that will get you there. It’s unlikely to result in any religious conversions, but if you already are a person of faith, you will likely find this movie inspiring and affirming to your view of the world.

The problem with this movie – and the reason it’s unlikely to reach anyone beyond its core audience – is that it takes place in a plastic world with plastic trees and plastic houses inhabited by plastic people. Other than Annabel’s (Kylie Rogers) disease, there is no adversity in this world. Every kid is a little angel who is willing to make any and all sacrifices for the sake and well-being of the other kids. The worst scolding these kids ever get from mom is for playing outside in their Sunday school dresses. There’s no boredom in church; the congregation enthusiastically crams in the pews every Sunday, and every man, woman and child listens with rapt attention when the pastor speaks, and laughs loudly at every joke he makes. In this world, “OMG” means “oh my goodness,” that other “G” word not being spoken unless it is in service or prayer to him with a capital “H.” Every single denizen of this world is a pious and believing Christian, with the notable exceptions of the (LIBERAL) media. This world is a Norman Rockwell depiction of the real one we actually live in.

While the messaging is heavy-handed, it is mostly not offensive to non-Christians. . . mostly. Unlike many of the other “faith-based’ films, there is thankfully no Christian Persecution Complex on display here. These characters operate well within a Christian worldview, where a crisis of faith doesn’t mean losing faith in the existence of god, it means losing faith in whether god actually will intervene in human events and help people who ask for it. There are even some Christians – the judgmental a*holes – that are temporarily portrayed in a negative light. While there is some Christian misogyny is on display here (reacting to a life-threatening emergency for her daughter, the dutiful wife calls her husband before she calls emergency services; the husband makes a big show of actually “allowing” his wife to say grace at the dinner table), it’s mostly whitewashed.

If it would have stuck to its folksy, downhome approach to religion and focused simply on the miracles, “Miracles from Heaven” would have been okay. The problem, however, is that it’s not content to be simply faith-affirming; it has to condescendingly try to tear down other world-views, too. There is a prominent subplot featuring an atheist/agnostic dad (again, a member of the LIBERAL MEDIA), with his like-minded daughter sick with cancer. Predictably (but unrealistically) the dad has a sudden change of heart after his daughter’s life is touched by Annabel. It is this type of messaging that’s offensive, because it perpetuates the Christian view that atheists and agnostics are only one miracle or sermon away from converting. “If I preach hard enough, or carry the message in just the right way, you’ll change your mind.” It is this lack of respect that deepens the religious divide in this country, and the one and only reason I have a problem with this film.

Listen up, faithful: atheists and agnostics don’t care what you believe in. They don’t care who, what, or how you worship. They don’t even mind movies and stories like this one. What the “nones” DO mind is your lack of respect for differing world views. “I’m right and you’re wrong” never got the human race anywhere in issues of politics, international relations, or philosophy, and as long as the discourse continues to be focused that way, we will continue to have this alleged culture war.

I’m upset that “Miracles from Heaven” had to cross that line, because otherwise it was an okay (if somewhat slow) movie of the week with a decent message that most folks – both religious and non-religious — would readily agree with: live each day like it is a miracle, and appreciate all of the little and big things that life has to offer.

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