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Miracles From Heaven ••1/2

Miracles_from_Heaven_posterStarring: Jennifer Garner,  Kylie Rogers,  Martin Henderson
Director: Patricia Riggen
Screenplay: Christy Beam,  Randy Brown
Drama, Rated: PG
Running Time: 109 minutes
Release Date: March 16, 2016


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(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Greg, we just saw a movie that begs the question, Do you believe in miracles?

It also begs the question, Who does God love more? Let’s recap:

We meet the Beam family: Christy (Jennifer Garner) and Kevin (Martin Henderson), along with their three children Abbie (Brighton Sharbino), Adelynn (Courtney Fansler), and Anna (Kylie Rogers). They’re all happy and doing great until one day Anna throws up for no reason. Soon we learn that she’s constantly sick and in pain. The Beams go from one doctor to another without getting any answers.

Finally they find someone who can advise them: Dr. Nurko. He explains that the signals from Anna’s brain don’t fully make their way to her digestive system. So she’s basically paralyzed from the stomach through her small and large intestines. She has to subsist on a liquid diet and lots of pain meds. The prognosis looks grim but he offers some small hope.

Miracles From Heaven is a Christian-based movie that follows the usual formula of the genre. We meet a hero of faith who is happy, but then something bad happens that ruins the happiness and jeopardizes the faith. In the end, God comes through with a needed miracle and both happiness and faith are restored. With a title like Miracles From Heaven, we know from the get-go what is going to happen. What we don’t know are the details, and any movie that gives away its punchline had better get those details right.

This movie pretty much gets the details right, and so the enjoyability of the movie hinges on one’s taste for the genre. The details that are effective begin with our two heroes, Christy and Anna. Jennifer Garner plays a distraught mother with agonizing effectiveness, and Anna exudes a tender sweetness even when she’s in pain. The hopelessness of Anna’s medical condition is heart wrenching to bear, and the maudlinism is dragged out a bit too long for my tastes. But the promised miracle delivers just the right punch.

There are several problems with this movie. The first is that the climax is delivered in the trailer. We know what is going to happen: The little girl gets sick, the doctors can’t help her, she falls from a tree onto her head, and she is cured. We aren’t ever in the situation where we fear for the little girl’s life – so it’s just a matter of waiting for the events to unfold.

There are a number of troubling scenes in this film. Not the least of which is a scene where Anna is in the hospital with a little girl dying from leukemia. The girl asks Anna if she fears death and she admits that she does, but she gets strength from her faith. Anna gives the girl her own cross and that is that. Until the end of the film when it is revealed that the girl is the daughter of the Boston Globe’s reporter Ben Wexler and she died after three weeks. So, apparently, if you’re a Christian girl and pray, God cures you. But if you’re a Jewish girl and don’t, God lets you die. It’s a troubling message.

This is the sort of question that such movies gloss over. On the one hand, God is glorified for curing blonde haired, blue eyed little girls. But gets no blame when other little girls die for no good reason. This is exacerbated by the fact that the pastor gives a sermon on how if things are not going well in your life, maybe you need to search your soul to see if you’re sinning. So, a couple parishioners approach Christie and ask her to reflect on her life and her husband’s. Or perhaps, Anna herself is the cause of her own illness. It’s an appalling question that the pastor shrugs off later. But it is the sort of themes that we see in Christian Inspirational movies.

I think this movie pretty much discredits any notion that people get sick because God is punishing them. The three parishioners who make this argument are shown to be cruel simpletons. The pastor’s unfortunate wording allows for misinterpretation. Sure, if we’re unhappy with a situation (like divorce or being thrown in jail) we need to look at our part — what role did we play in causing it? The situation facing our heroes was illness, so the question isn’t “what did I do to cause it” but rather “have I drifted away from God?” If a Christian drifts away like Christy Beam does, there will be misery and struggle.

So nothing the pastor says is wrong, but his wording allows for misuse of God and religion. I didn’t view his sermon as problematic because I don’t have the warped mindset of the three parishioners who twisted the message. It’s unfortunate that the makers of this film included this muddied and confusing message. I wonder if they deliberately made the pastor’s wording ambiguous to appeal to a wide swath of people — those who misuse religion as well as those who don’t. Who knows.

But let’s not lose sight of the hero’s journey here. It’s a pretty good one, regardless of whether you see the story through the lens of an atheist or a believer. The hero of the story is either the entire Beam family or it is the mother Christy — or it could even be the duo of mother and child. Regardless, the hero or heroes of this story venture into a dangerous unfamiliar world of sickness and dying. They get help along the way — a physician, a church friend, a receptionist, an airline employee, and even a server in a restaurant. It’s a community of helpers, each offering a hand in a different way.

The two primary mentors are the pastor who offers spiritual guidance, and the Boston physician who offers medical expertise. Going into the movie, I was anticipating that God Himself might serve as a mentor figure. There are scenes of our heroes praying for guidance from the Divine Mentor, and one could argue that God gave our heroes invaluable help in the form of friends and fire departments, not to mention the serendipitous accident that solves our hero’s problems.

Fair enough. But we also see Christy falling deeper and deeper into a loss of faith in God. She’s at the bottom of her well of despair when Anna falls from a tree and bangs her head – leaving her unconscious. Now, Christy and her friends and family come together and pray harder than they ever have. And when Anna is cured of her illness, Christy regains her faith. This shows that when good things happen, God is worthy of praise and thanks. But bad things are cause for abandoning God. It’s a bad message – and contrary to what the film is trying to show. So, the film lacks an internal consistency.

But you bring up another criticism I have of this film. Who is the lead character? I say it’s the mother. And we’re on a journey with her through a loss of faith and reclaiming it. The child is merely the prop that causes Christy to fall into the abyss of faithlessness. But the classic hero’s journey is lost here. While we see the ordinary world of Christy’s idyllic life with her happy family and children, she is cast into a special world of pain and anguish when her child falls ill. But it’s not through her overcoming of some missing inner quality that she attains her goal of curing her child. It’s a literal deus-ex-machina moment where Anna is cured by a miracle. The hero has no catharsis – she simply succeeds by dumb luck.

What is dumb luck to you is divine intervention to others. Our hero’s prayers were answered. Whether you believe in God or prayer or not, answers did arrive. The magic here is no different from the magic of Bilbo Baggins’ ring in The Hobbit or the wizardry at work in countless other films such as Big, Maleficent, and Groundhog Day. Heroes often want a particular outcome, and they do what it takes to invoke the miracle needed for it to happen.

The real issue here isn’t whether God exists or not, or whether God is fair to everyone, or anything having to do with religion. The central issue for us is whether we have a valid, complete, and effective hero’s journey. I see a pretty decent hero narrative here, one that is far from perfect but the elements are all in place — a journey to a perilous world, social helpers, a villainous entity, missing inner qualities in the hero, and success at the end. We don’t really see the heroes bestowing a boon to the world at the end, unless of course this movie is the Beams’ way of sharing their faith with others.

There’s yet another scene where young Anna is in such terrible pain that she wishes to die. Poor Christy is dumbstruck not knowing how to console her child. It’s a heartbreaking moment that any parent can sympathize with. Then, Anna poses a question that the movie glosses over. She asks, “Why should I stay here where I am in pain when I could go to heaven and be pain free and happy with God?” This is a deep philosophical question. If heaven is so wonderful, why should we endure the pain and suffering of life on Earth? Indeed, for this child there seemed to be no hope. And for her young friend the same. But instead of dealing with this question, it was solved by having her father and sisters burst into the room to make her feel better. It was a missed opportunity to deal with a real religious question.

The movie ends with a scene where Anna explains that while she was unconscious she saw God and he told her she’d be alright. It harkens back to the other movie by the same producers: Heaven is for Real. This scene is dropped into the end of the film with little attachment to any other scene. Near death experiences are significant events that are worthy of study and may hold deeper philosophical and religious consequences. In the other film, it was the central point of the story. Here, it’s merely an afterthought. This is another missed opportunity.

Fair enough. Let’s get to the ratings. Miracles From Heaven is a moving tale of pain and tested faith. It shows us the despair of facing an incurable disease, the stress of financial ruin from medical costs, and the emptiness of lost faith in God. That this tale is a true story is utterly remarkable. Anna’s recovery is indeed a miracle, unexplained by science and exactly what this family needed to heal spiritually and physically. Although Miracles From Heaven moved me, it did drag in places and portrayed religious belief in an overly simplistic and sometimes confusing way. Still, the movie earns 3 Reels out of 5.

Our hero or heroes really went through the wringer here, undergoing a terrible ordeal that wracked them emotionally, spiritually, physically, and financially. The hero’s journey contained many of the elements that we look for in good hero narratives. Greg, you raise the point whether our hero was transformed. I don’t know how one could not be transformed from the hell the family went through. Anna certainly acquired resilience and wisdom, and the mother undergoes a loss of faith followed by a powerful reaffirmation of it. Something tells me she’ll never question God again in her life. The heroes here merit 4 Heroes out of 5.

Finally, the mentoring is solid, with a preacher providing spiritual goodies and the famous doctor dispensing his compassionate care with great acumen. I’d still like to argue that the Beam family turned to God Himself for some serious mentoring, and they got from Him what they asked for. Perhaps not when and how they asked for it, but that kind of mysterious divine mentoring is a hallmark feature of Christianity. The collection of mentors here get a more than solid rating of 4 Mentors out of 5.

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Jennifer Garner is excellent in her role as the mother who will do anything to save her child. And young Kylie Rogers as Anna delivers a performance that brought tears to my eyes. Nobody wants to watch another person suffer, but to watch a child suffer excruciating pain for 90 minutes is truly unbearable. Miracles from Heaven is not the worst Christian Inspirational movie I’ve ever seen (that award goes to last year’s Kirk Cameron Saves Christmas). But it is loaded with all the tropes and simplistic storytelling that is common in the genre. I can only give Miracles 2 Reels out of 5.

Christy as the hero of the story leaves a lot to be desired. We’ve seen stories of people who have lost all hope and turn to God for support. Last year’s flawed Unbreakable is a good example. We love to see people come from the bottom of their emotional well and rise up to overcome their lacking faith. Here, Christy loses her faith and it is only restored when her daughter is cured by a miracle. It’s a bad message. People of faith, the ones who truly have faith, keep it through the worst of times and maintain it even after a great tragedy. It’s what buoys them and carries them. In that sense, the father was a better representative of a heroic journey. I can only give Christy 2 out of 5 Heroes.

Finally, the movie has two mentors of interest. The pastor is a good man who is leading his flock. He’s there when Christy suffers a crisis of faith. It’s a common character (we see it also in Soul Surfer). But he’s not very active in guiding Christy. The second mentor is Dr Nurko. He reminded me of Patch Adams – a jocular and caring man who was guiding Christy and Anna through the special world of this uncommon disease. Usually you want to see the mentor counsel the hero so that they can manage the special world – and then the hero goes on alone as a master of that world. But Dr. Nurko has no advice for Christy when medicine has done all it can – and it is not enough. He sends Anna home to die. He’s a nice man, but not a great mentor. I can only give him and the pastor 2 out of 5 Mentors.

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