Miracles from Heaven answers one of the most important questions of our time: How little Jesus has to be in a movie for film critics to hate it? And the answer is: Very, very little indeed.
With a 40-point split on Rotten Tomatoes between critics and audiences (44/83), critics hated this movie more (relatively) than Heaven Is For Real, and yet of all the Christian-themed movies we’ve seen recently (including God’s Not Dead and Risen but not Machine Gun Preacher, which I still maintain is a genuine classic) this is both the least Jesus-y and the most successful dramatically. Like, God’s Not Dead has the form of a series of parables which are, yes, rather ham-handed, but also not meant to be taken literally. Risen has third act problems, as noted in that review. And Heaven is for Real goes wayward in the middle of the second act.
But here’s a movie that has a classic story arc, beautifully staged and masterfully acted, which builds to its third act resolution in a compelling way (despite one knowing, pretty much, how it must end) and the criticisms are the same: ham-handed, preaching to the choir, etc. It’s almost like they’re not actually watching these things.
The story is simple enough: Religious family from Texas, successful but over-extended credit-wise as the father opens a giant new veterinary clinic, find themselves in an existential crisis when one of their three daughters presents with a rare and ultimately fatal digestive disorder. The movie primarily focuses on the mother (Jennifer Garner) as she struggles to find a cure for her daughter, draining the family’s resources, and her well of faith.
She’s driven from her church by a small coterie of “well meaning” people who take the (sorta) Jehovah’s Witness line that, if something is wrong, it must be because somebody sinned (like the parents or even the little girl), though she’s ultimately wrestling with that timeless (adolescent) question: Why does God allow bad things to happen?
If I were to describe this movie, I’d almost say it was a “road trip” movie, except that the road is a spiritual one. As Christy (Garner) flies from back and forth from Texas to Boston (where the best doctor is), she’s constantly meeting people who add a little something to the journey. These moments are effectively edited into a montage at the end of the film that says “God works mostly through the actions of all of us, not miracles.”
Yes, there’s a miraculous cure. There’s conversion of an unbeliever. There are a couple of scenes in a church, although one is an example of the worst sort of busybodying that goes on in a church. The sick little girl mentions Jesus as a source of strength, and gives a crucifix to another sick little girl whose parents are not believers. And the miraculous cure, per the girl herself, comes through a vision of heaven similar to what we saw in Heaven is for Real.
The movie gives you an out if you don’t choose to believe it, even. But as I noted in Heaven is for Real, we can’t really talk about these things rationally. Critics react to a crucifix in much the same way vampires do. (Things that make you go “Hmmmm.”) But to get hung up on those things rather than come away with the idea that when we listen to God (or, if you prefer, our consciences, our inner voices, or whatever), we tend to do the right thing—even when it’s not easy, it puts us at jeopardy, and even when nobody in the world would call us on it—and that results in the best sort of miracles.
Of all the four Jesus-themed movies we’ve seen, this was both the best and the least objectionable, unless you’re allergic to crosses. I had to double-check with The Boy, because the movie is chock-full of really accurate interactions with a nigh-useless medical community with which I am quite familiar and tend to be moved by, and he gave it his most enthusiastic thumbs up as well, particularly singling out Eugenio Derbez (who is playing, I kid you not, Speedy Gonzales in an upcoming film) as the doctor who cares but realizes when things are out of his hands.
It was also amusing to see John Carroll Lynch as a preacher since we had just seen him in a decidedly different role in The Invitation.
Check it out, folks.