Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Small miracles

Good films, like all good stories, tell us something about ourselves and the world around us, and the best stories challenge and inspire us. You might think Christian films would be at the top of my list in this regard, but generally they’re not. From their low production quality to poor storytelling and character development, these films leave me more frustrated than inspired.

Over the last few years, faith-based films have seen an infusion of Hollywood studios, star power, and directors. Unfortunately, most of the time this tends to simply put a shiny sheen on poor storytelling. But lately a couple of films have given me hope—and Miracles from Heaven is one of those.

An adaption of Christy Beam’s memoir by the same name, the film tells the story of Christy’s journey and crisis of faith as her young daughter Annabel gets sick and is eventually diagnosed with a life-threatening disease.

This film gets some essential things right—and much of that is due to a strong performance by Jennifer Garner (Alias, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day), well-crafted portions in the script by Randy Brown (Trouble with the Curve), and direction by Patricia Riggen.

One of the film’s greatest strengths is that it takes time to let the story tell itself.

As a result, we’re allowed to experience Christy’s growing sense of helplessness as she watches Annabel suffer. I know what it’s like to sludge through the medical system, hold down your child’s arms so he doesn’t pull tubes out of his nose, and sit by a hospital bed when your child is in pain. Brown’s script and Garner’s performance do a good job of delivering that experience.

Taking time to tell the story also allows for a more genuine and realistic portrayal of a faith in crisis. We are able to experience Christy’s anxiety and her growing sense of her inability to control life and how that contributes to her questioning of God’s reliability and presence and her inability to pray. And her conversations with her husband could have been lifted from ones I’ve had during my own faith journey.

But the film’s best moments are those without words, especially at pivotal points in Christy’s faith journey.

Like the moment Christy really sinks into her growing doubt about God as the doctor tells her and her husband that Annabel’s condition doesn’t have a cure. Riggen focuses on Christy’s face as she looks up to a window in the hospital ceiling and then back down to the floor; we don’t need to hear her express her doubt because we can feel it. This wordless moment is mirrored with another during a crisis near the end of the film, just before Christy starts her journey back to faith with a prayer, probably her first one in years. Garner’s performance makes these moments feel real and even moving.

Unfortunately, Miracles from Heaven doesn’t get everything right. Good portions of the film still feel heavy-handed, and the film is at its weakest when it preaches—sometimes quite literally from a pulpit. Also, segments of the film feel contrived and forced, especially during the last quarter of the story.

At the end of the film, we’re told that miracles aren’t always big, and if we pay attention, we can find them in the little and simple things of life. It’s little things in this movie—like taking time to tell a story, earning pivotal moments, and a strong performance like Garner’s—that give me hope for future films about faith journeys.


This review first appeared at Third Way.

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