Most of my energy over the last few weeks has gone towards writing about various Bible-themed productions — Risen, The Young Messiah, Of Kings and Prophets, Ben-Hur, even the upcoming The Passion Live — but I figured I’d take a moment to say a few words about Miracles from Heaven, which opened on Wednesday.
First, this marks at least the third year in a row that we have seen a film based on a best-selling “Heaven tourism” book. The genre has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years, thanks to Alex Malarkey’s revelation that his own book was a sham — and one major Christian bookstore chain has already yanked all books in this genre off its shelves. Matters are compounded when we look at films in this genre, because movies always make changes to the true stories on which they are based — and while I did write an extensive critique of Heaven Is for Real two years ago, comparing and contrasting it to Todd Burpo’s original book, I have not read the books that Miracles from Heaven or last year’s film, 90 Minutes in Heaven, were based on. So I can respond to those two films only as films. But it’s worth remembering that Heaven Is for Real made some major changes to the original story — and even contradicted it on some essential points — and that Miracles from Heaven is produced by the same people, albeit with a different director and screenwriter. So there’s that.
Looking at these films simply as films, I think my favorite so far is 90 Minutes in Heaven, mainly because it focuses on the dark side of “Heaven tourism”, namely the possibility that those who have seen a glimpse of the afterlife will lose interest in this world, especially when staying in this world means a lot of pain and suffering. In any case, that film and Heaven Is for Real both put their protagonists’ near-death experiences near the beginning, and followed through on the ramifications of those experiences: in one film, Greg Kinnear tries to find rational explanations for what his son claims to have experienced, while in the other film, Hayden Christensen struggles to find the will to put his life back together after a near-fatal car accident. Miracles from Heaven, on the other hand, puts the near-death experience near the end — and, what’s more, it credits the near-death experience with miraculously healing a girl who has spent most of the movie suffering from a rare digestive disorder. This has the odd effect of making the visit to Heaven in this film seem like a deus ex machina; it is not really the subject of the film but its out-of-the-blue resolution. If that is what the real-life versions of these characters experienced, then good for them — truly — but thanks in part to the spoiler-ish title and trailers, the average viewer might get restless and begin to wonder when the Heaven stuff is going to kick in. And somewhere in there you might begin to wonder why “faith-based” films are only made about people who were blessed with miracles and book deals, and not about people (actual or fictitious) who simply struggle to get through life but grow through their suffering.
To its credit, Miracles from Heaven does offer a compelling portrait of a family coping with the stress of dealing with a rare disease. Kylie Rogers, who was 11 when the movie was shot, is incredibly good at depicting the young Anna Beam’s mood swings, as this normally upbeat young girl sobs over her pain and gets angry with her mother for suggesting that she get a shower. And Jennifer Garner, as the mother Christy Beam, gets to play a woman who actually loses her faith for a while because she’s fed up with the judgmental women at church (who think Anna is suffering because someone in the family sinned; evidently those women haven’t read John 9 lately) and also because her husband Kevin (Martin Henderson) blithely says they’ll get by on “faith” without offering much more in the way of details. As a Canadian, I cannot help but object to the way the film tacitly endorses Christy’s queue-jumping — wait lists exist for a reason, and if Anna gets treatment before her time, it presumably means someone else is going to have to suffer even longer — but I appreciate the way the film focuses on the siblings and others who struggle back at home in Texas while Anna and her mom make regular flights to the Boston Children’s Hospital. It all feels real to me.
Stylistically, the film is a tad uneven. The film has moments of silent introspection, like when Christy stares up at a skylight while receiving some bad news, or when Anna is drawn to an abstract painting at an art gallery. A few scenes with Queen Latifah as a waitress who befriends the Beams play like warmed-over comic relief. There’s a montage that plays like a music video, because even though some of the clips within the montage show Third Day playing a worship band in front of a congregation, the soundtrack consists entirely of studio-recorded music — there is no sense that we are listening to an actual song sung in church, no matter what the visuals suggest. One scene begins with an Angry Birds video feed that looks like someone ran an HDMI cable between an iPad and the movie projector. And in an obvious bit of product placement, the Beam children repeatedly watch Sony Pictures Animation films. (Come to think of it, Sony is distributing the Angry Birds movie, too.) Director Patricia Riggen, whose last film was the Chilean-miners movie The 33, is on surer footing when dealing with various family dynamics, and she’s really in her wheelhouse when Anna falls into a hollowed-out tree and the rescue crews arrive. And the computer-generated Heaven sequence is thankfully not the kitschfest it could have been.
Interestingly, the film goes out of its way to let us know that the Beams are regular consumers of pop culture. In addition to the various product placements, there is also an opening scene in which they talk dismissively about a girl who thinks Disneyland is “the work of Satan,” and the youngest daughter has a Taylor Swift poster on her wall and wants to change her name to Taylor. And when the film concludes with a look at the real-life Beams, the tune playing on the soundtrack is a Beatles cover. Miracles from Heaven may be a “niche” Christian film, but it’s not stuck in the ghetto. Whether it has watered down its source material to reach a wider audience the way Heaven Is for Real did, I cannot say, but at its best it’s moving and compassionate stuff.