The story of Anna Beam’s unexpected recovery from a supposedly incurable digestive system condition is, in this screen adaptation, just bland and inoffensive enough to encourage the audience to care. That journey from dire diagnosis to happy, active young girl bears the weight of the drama in this “based on true events” product of Affirm Films, the evangelical Christian division of Sony Pictures. Like previous Affirm release Heaven Is for Real, Miracles From Heaven presents the story of a child who is convinced she’s visited the afterlife, so how this comes across will depend not just on your religious sympathies, but your tolerance for cloying dramatization.
The screenplay credited to Randy Brown (Trouble With the Curve) spends most of the film’s running time on the Beam family’s struggles to figure out what’s wrong with Anna (Kylie Rogers) so they can find a treatment that works. Early diagnoses of lactose intolerance and “congratulations, there’s nothing wrong with your daughter” prove frustrating and incorrect. That struggle is depicted mostly through Christy Beam (Jennifer Garner), matriarch of a church-going family of three daughters and a manly, pickup-driving husband 9Martin Henderson) who looks to have come out of central casting to play a country music video love interest. The Beams are presented as having it all, which includes their considerably picturesque property in Burleson, Texas and idyllic, two-story home. Real-life Christy authored the 2015 book, upon which this film, which carries over the same title (one that sounds like the result of a Christian movie-name generator), is based.
Garner plays Christy with the furrowed-brow worry and energy of a parent who will do anything to save her child from suffering or dying. Her impatience leads to a flight to Boston where she imposes upon the waiting list of Dr. Samuel Nurko (Eugenio Durbez), a specialist in children’s gastroenterology. While in the city, Christy and Anna befirend a heart-of-gold waitress (Queen Latifah) in a sequence that adds some humor, warmth and patches of guess-what-this-symbolizes sunlight visible through the top of the water at the aquarium they visit.
Anna continues to suffer and Christy loses her religious faith—and while the movie doesn’t dwell on this point, it doesn’t have to, because Miracles From Heaven has already established that it’s about Christy’s response to the crisis. She has no time for her husband’s incessant “everything’s gonna be okay, baby.” So when a few holy rollers suggest that Anna’s condition might be due to her sin, Christy decides she’s had enough with the church.
Patricia Riggen, director of another true-life tale, 2015’s The 33, delivers a few portentous shots of a leaf-less tree on the Beams’ property that figures in the pivotal moment—revealed in the trailer and radio spots—when Anna falls from a branch and into the hollow trunk. Miracles From Heaven delivers Anna’s rescue as a slow-motion unfolding of solemn faces, group prayer and heroic responders. The strategy saves on running time, is keeping with the previously established, kitsch-dominant aesthetic, and it gets us that much quicker to the Big Moment, the one also revealed in the promotional ads: Anna not only survives her fall, she’s cured of her affliction.
When Anna recounts her experience in the tree, she describes visiting paradise, shown as trees and lakes tinted in primary colors. A few touches during the flashback seem to gently suggest that Anna’s out-of-body experience may have been a dream and not the visit to heaven she and the family want to think it is. But even if Miracles From Heaven leaves itself a bit of wiggle room as to whether God is real or not, Christy’s faith in a benevolent, involved creator is inevitably restored.
Such is the message that she delivers to her congregation, finally addressing, inadequately, the issue hanging over her crisis of faith: Why did it take a personal experience of grief and struggle to doubt God when so much suffering in the world should have made that an issue she reconciled one way or the other long ago? It’s not an issue Miracles From Heaven is concerned with resolving…so it doesn’t.
Director: Patricia Riggen
Writer: Randy Brown
Starring: Jennifer Garner, Kylie Rogers, Martin Henderson, John Carroll Lynch, Queen Latifah
Release Date: March 16, 2016