Miracles from Heaven means well, and I mean that sincerely. It promises an uplifting, feel-good story about the nobility of paying-it-forward, doing right by your neighbors and the power of faith and adversity against the hardships of the world. And believe it or not, it doesn’t necessarily feel like a gospel lesson in the process.
Unlike its hokey, sermon-heavy evangelical cinematic peers like God’s Not Dead or Heaven is for Real, there’s an honest, hard-wrought underlining integrity to the film earned by respectable performances from Jennifer Garner, Martin Henderson, Kylie Rogers John Carroll Lynch and Eugenio Derbez.
It’s melodramatic at times, sure. In fact, a lot of the time, as its never truly prone to subtlety. But there’s an occasional moment of raw emotional intensity, or genuinely affecting physical turmoil, that doesn’t often feel as cheap or manipulative as you’d think. In the right contexts, the newest film from director Patricia Riggen (The 33) ascends above the condemning expectations of the genre. But only, unfortunately, in choice moments. For on the whole, Miracles from Heaven about as disposable, generic and unmoving as you’d expect. It could have been an absolute godsend, but it doesn’t rise to the occasion. And that’s a damn shame.
Based on Christy Beam’s memoir of the same name, Miracles from Heaven centers on the hellish struggles the author (Garner), her husband Kevin (Henderson) and daughters Abbie (Brighton Sharbino) and Adelynn (Courtney Fansler) face when her middle child Anna (Rogers) is diagnosed with extreme rare disorder, one which renders her body unable to process food. She lives with constant pain, an ignited tummy and an inability to eat anything unless it’s digested through an extended tube that goes through her nostril. It’s a difficult, traumatic experience for the family, and while it isn’t approached with nuance, it’s dealt with a great sensitivity from Riggens and committed-to-the-teeth acting from our two leads.
Though never quite landing her thick Texan accident, Garner gives her performance everything she’s got. And as a mother of three herself, it’s easy to see this dedicated, unflinching love for her children communicated onto the screen through his real-life persona. It’s a heartfelt, occasionally gutting piece of work, if captivated through a grounded sense of humanity that Riggens occasional communicates in her direction. It’s certainly better than the questionable work she gave in Men, Women & Children, and certainly more noteworthy than the indiscernible performances she provided in Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day and Dallas Buyers’ Club of late. That much is for sure.
And as we follow one horrific ordeal after another horrific ordeal, when it comes to the film’s thickly-laced Christian themes, Miracles from Heaven isn’t afraid to ask from big questions and challenge its audience. Some films in this specific genre — I’m looking at you again, God’s Not Dead — refuse to examine the true hardships it takes to follow your faith and believe what you believe in an unforgiving, often bleak and merciless world. They want to simply to paint everything in broad strokes all the time, and Sony’s new film often has the chance to move away from such predictable follies.
And yet, Riggens’ film — despite this goodwill implanted throughout — can’t help but fall victim to similarly lazy, clichéd story tropes for its entire running time. Numerous supporting characters, namely clueless doctors and close-minded churchgoers, get painted as pure imbeciles or, sometimes, straight-up careless monsters. And I have to believe this must have been communicated through Beam’s original text. I wasn’t there for the pain her family endured and the occasional lack-of-support she received from those around her, but I can’t imagine everyone was this unsympathetic. This is a child we’re talking about here, for crying out loud.
It makes the film feel cartoonish, and that’s not the only way Miracles from Heaven fails to accomplish its much-desired hard-earned realism. Comedy beats, namely from Queen Latifah as the stereotypical black comedic relief character, feel awkward, forced and misplaced, especially proceeding a lot of the heavy drama that surrounds these tonal shifts. I understand its intentions, and moments of levity are often effective when provided solely by the charismatic-as-ever Instructions Not Included star/director Derbez playing Dr. Nurko, the loving, supportive child doctor who’s seemingly Anna’s only hope for recovery. But eight out of ten times, they pull you out of the intense narrative and make you feel pain in ways you weren’t supposed to experience throughout this extended narrative dramatization.
And then, by the time we get to the end of the second act, all the cheesiness and blunt messages we expected from Message from Heaven come flooding into the picture. Hoping to impart simplistic motivation onto its impressionable audience, these moments severely lack the emotional pull and deep-rooted honesty they need to sell this movie to a wider audience.
Despite one unexpectedly beautiful recreation of the land behind the pearly gates, the rest of the film feels tedious and preachy, often quite literally. If Riggins’ film felt like it was TV-movie before, it’s here where Miracles from Heaven finally becomes something straight from the Trinity Broadcast Network, though equipped with higher production values and a better cast. There’s a golden opportunity to bridge the gap between Sunday School morta and genuinely effective feel-good crowd-winner, because there’s a universal power to this story. Riggins seems to know as much, too, but that doesn’t stop herself from indulging in the sappy checkpoints and expectations of this often-limited genre. And that’s what makes this whole thing so disappointing by the end.
There’s a set audience for Miracles from Heaven, yes. And they’ll likely get their moneys worth with what little they’re given here. If the title alone sound enticing, chances are you’ll be moved by his dramatization. It’s certainly not as bad as you’d expect, and it’s not the worst Christian drama I’ve seen this early year. It’s still better than the druggy Risen, for instance. But there’s a serious potential here to make a more impacting, powerful, life-affirming film here, and Riggins fumbles almost completely by the end.
It reminded me a lot of 30 Minutes in Heaven in that respect — another recent Christian drama with better-than-average actors, grave stakes and a story worth telling but unable to communicate its themes with absolute honesty and room for interpretation. The latest from Affirm Films isn’t without its saving graces, but it’s most certainly not a miracle.
Despite earnest intentions and a promising cast, Miracles from Heaven can't find salvation from its own shortcomings.