Miracles From Heaven

 

            Faith-based movies have been known to be difficult to watch, even for those of us who are professed believers and active churchgoers.  It's difficult to describe the problem precisely, but a kind of cheesiness, a holier-than-thou, a posturing for the cameras that feels forced, staged, self-conscious, overly pious, not real.  And therefore not very appealing, even though in theory, it ought to be inspiring, it's too sticky-sweet.  Treacly. Contrived sentimentality.

            “Miracles From Heaven” is not completely devoid of this off-putting dynamic, but it's so well-made that the characters are winsome, and feel authentic, perhaps because it's based on a true story.

            The Bream family----Mom, Dad, and three sisters—live in Burleson, Texas, outside of Ft. Worth.  He's a veterinarian who has just expanded his practice to include large farm animals as well as household pets.  So Mom, Christy (Jennifer Garner) is worried about mortgaging their house to the hilt to pay for the business expansion.  They live out in the country, in an old farmhouse, with enough land around them that they can't see any neighbor's houses.  There's an old cottonwood tree out front that the girls love to climb, and they have five dogs.  They all go to church together on Sundays, at a place where the minister, Pastor Scott (John Carroll Lynch), is engaging, succint, humorous, and insightful. (Pulpit committees will be calling him.)

            The trouble starts when the middle daughter, Anna (Kylie Rogers), gets sick.  She just can't seem to quit throwing up.  It's not a virus, it's not acid reflex, it's not a bug going around, and it's not gluten or lactose intolerance.  (There's a cute scene where the whole family decides to together that if Anna can't have pizza, they won't, either.)  The doctors all seem puzzled by this, until finally they find the awful diagnosis:  a rare motility disorder where her intestines simply don't process the food the stomach sends.  Nobody seems to know how to treat it.  The doctors say there's one specialist in Boston, a Dr. Nurko, who might help them. Christy makes it her personal mission to get in to see him, and won't be deterred by being told his waiting list is months long.  She flies up there with Anna, anyway, and camps out in the waiting room until they finally have pity on her and agree to see her daughter. 

            Dr. Nurko (Eugenio Derbez) turns out to be one of those wonderful pediatricians with a great sense of humor who's always clowning around with his patients, but he's also clear with Christy that there's not much they can do.  Some drugs might help slow the digestive process, but Anna will still be in pain, and still not cured.  Perhaps it's time to just go home.  She needs the rest of her family.

            When they finally arrive back in Burleson, Christy is busy on the phone trying to arrange for a child psychologist to handle the depression that Dr. Nurko said would be inevitable for Anna.  The girls go outside to climb up their favorite hollowed-out cottonwood tree, and somehow Anna falls through the inside, all the way to the ground, where she's unresponsive.

            What happens next is the “miracle” part.  She not only survives this steep plunge, she emerges from it “cured,” as if the blow to the nervous system has jump-started the electrical impulses needed to drive her internal motility.  She later reports to her parents having a vision of being in a beautiful garden, then walking on clouds, then talking to the bright light about coming back. 

            The doctors are astounded, as is the whole family, but at the end, Christy's testimony at church isn't just about Anna's “miracle cure,” because they all realize that many others' prayers are not answered in that way, but she talks about the little miracles of all the kindnesses along the way that people showed to them, from receptionists to waitresses to airline ticket agents to neighbors.  The congregation says “Hallelujah” and everyone goes home happy, and we start to think it's too good to be true, and then, during the credits, we meet the “real” Bream family.  Miracles from Heaven, indeed.

 

Questions for Discussion:

1)                  After Anna is diagnosed, someone from the church suggests that there must be sinfulness somewhere in their lives to have caused this.  (See John 9.)  Christy is so angry about this insinuation that she quits going to church.  Do you think there's a causal connection?

2)                  Christy confesses that for a while there she lost her faith, because her prayers for her daughter's healing weren't being answered.  Is faith dependent on answered prayer?

3)                  Anna is so sick and in so much pain that at one point she tells her Mom that she'd like to just die.  Has any family member ever told you that, and what was your response?

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association