Early on, when Miracles From Heaven is busy establishing its main characters’ warm, openhearted, regular-folks piety, Texas mom Christy Beam (Jennifer Garner) goes around to each of her three daughters’ bedrooms for a “prayer check.” She isn’t just checking to make sure they’ve said their prayers (though she is doing that); she also asks them to share one prayer each with her. This sequence is probably also intended to provide a glimpse into the characters of Abbie (Brighton Sharbino), Anna (Kylie Rogers), and Adelynn (Courtney Fansler), but there’s something slightly pushy and overeager about the movie’s use of this strategy, just as Christy’s request feels both like motherly involvement and a security checkpoint.
Maybe the movie provides that checkpoint for the courtesy of general audiences. Movies like Miracles From Heaven, Sony’s would-be successor to its heaven-proving blockbuster Heaven Is For Real, aren’t intended for cynical consumption, and that’s fine. The problem is that they’re barely intended to be movies at all. Stories that lead inextricably toward divine intervention don’t have a lot of options other than killing time. Any real character shading or cinematic style beyond holy golden light might undermine the movie’s objective reality that God exists, heaven is real, and miracles happen. It is, after all, based on a true story.
And so, Miracles From Heaven proceeds with the hour-plus of setup leading to a little girl falling into a tree. Opening with narration just a few degrees shy of explaining how Webster’s dictionary defines the word “miracle,” the movie spends just enough time with the Beam family to register token sadness when middle daughter Anna is diagnosed with a rare intestinal disorder—that is, after protective supermom Christy shouts down several young, foolish doctors and successfully wrangles an older and therefore wiser doctor capable of seeing that Anna isn’t just suffering from lactose intolerance. Anna begins treatment, living in near-constant pain, only able to eat from a tube, and never out of danger. As Christy fights for better care, she begins to question her faith. How could a truly loving God (played here by a patch of clouds in the beautiful blue sky) allow her daughter to suffer this way? (The existence of other miscellaneous worldwide suffering had apparently never registered with her.)
To describe the various other bits of plot business that lead up to the movie’s key event—Anna falls into a large hollow tree, hits her head hard, and regains consciousness cured of her disorder—would synopsize almost the entire movie. In fact, Anna’s fall should constitute a spoiler, as a detailed description of something that happens half an hour or so before the movie ends normally would. But the accident is the movie’s entire reason for being, fully summarized in the film’s trailers. So Miracles From Heaven is stuck pretending it’s a normal, watchable movie where important or at least entertaining things happen before the 75-minute mark. When Christy and Anna interrupt an impromptu doctor-soliciting trip to Boston to interact with a kind and mildly zany Queen Latifah character who befriends them and takes them on a stock-footage tour of the city, it seems to be out of some deference to the idea that movies have supporting characters, sometimes played by famous actors.
The unifying pre-miracle story is supposed to be Christy’s crisis of faith, most clearly demonstrated in a scene where her husband (Martin Henderson) looks chilled by her refusal to take his “it’ll all work out” as an answer to impending financial, health, and family woes. Beyond any religious considerations, a successful and talented actor like Garner might be drawn to this material because it offers a conflicted leading role for a woman over 40. Miracles From Heaven is too dramatically inert to oblige Garner with a great character, but it does offer plenty of tearful monologues and mini-monologues: at least one pleading for doctors to help her daughter, one where she questions her faith, and one, finally, about the miracles that surround us every day. In addition to a tear-duct endurance challenge for the actors, that last monologue seems like an olive branch to the less dogmatic members of the audience; if you don’t buy a medical oddity as a straight-from-God miracle, surely you can at least acknowledge the miraculous nature of human kindness.
The human part proves tricky, though. The angelic Anna never once registers as a person; no matter how many times she mentions her single would-be quirk (she’s interested in Paris), she remains intestinal-distress fodder and, eventually, kind of a smug little moppet, sanguine in her faith even as she approaches death’s door. Her late-movie revelation to her parents about her visit to heaven—which attempts to evoke Monet but quickly turns into the most Lisa Frank afterlife since The Lovely Bones—has the calculated poise of a press conference. It feels especially like spin given that a doctor in the movie actually offers a potential (albeit extremely vague) medical reason for Anna’s recovery.
Spun or not, Miracles From Heaven has its audience, and that audience will likely be satisfied by its grab-bag imitation of a satisfying narrative (though even that audience might wonder why the movie has to run closer to two hours than 90 minutes). It’s like a comic book movie heaped with too much nerdy mythology for a streamlined story, with the distinction that some comic book movies sometimes have exciting action sequences. Sony, “the studio that brought you Heaven Is For Real,” might have done well to just admit that it has a franchise on its hands, and affixed Miracles From Heaven with a post-credits scene of Colton Burpo turning up to invite Anna to join the heaven truthers.