The evangelical Christian film industry is at a bit of a crossroads right now, if you’ll forgive the pun. While it’s enjoyed a recent bout of popularity with decently-profitable theatrical releases like Fireproof and Heaven is for Real, there’s been a real problem getting the quality of the films themselves to match these increasingly high grosses. There’s no inherent issue with making and marketing films to specific audiences, but the biggest problem is that, by and large, Christian films are just not good films. They’re poorly shot, sloppily acted, and their messaging typically revolves around an unchallenged, uncomplicated, and conservative idea of Christianity and America. In that respect, Miracles from Heaven comes the closest to giving Christian audiences an okay film – it just can’t shake the desperately preachy trappings of its genre.
Just like its predecessors, Miracles from Heaven is based on one of those fantastic stories that could presumably be found on a church group’s Facebook: young Anna Beam (Kylie Rogers), the middle daughter of a happy Texas family led by housewife Christy (Jennifer Garner) and veterinarian Kevin (Martin Henderson), starts coming down with a mysterious illness that is revealed to be a pseudo-obstruction motility disorder that prevents her from being able to eat food. As she gets increasingly sick, and the top doctors in the world can’t help her, Anna falls from a tree and has a near-death experience in which she learns that heaven is, you guessed it, for real. Oh hey, and she’s cured, too!
One of the most common complains about Christian films (that they look terrible) is largely addressed in Miracles, with director Patricia Riggen offering some genuine moments of artistry. Instead of looking like a Lifetime Original Movie reject, it actually comes close to looking like something with a visual style. A variety of onscreen symbols (fish, butterflies, Monet’s “View of the Sea at Sunset”) are used subtly to signify Garner’s gradual loss of faith and the simple tragedies of a family dealing with a frustrating illness, and Riggen frames many of the film’s smallest, most intimate moments with genuine care. Despite some histrionics, Garner puts in a solid performance, and young Kylie Rogers navigates the melodrama of a dying child as well as can be expected.
Unfortunately, Miracles soils these rare glimpses of an artfully-crafted Christian film through the over-the-top genre trappings all modern evangelical films seemingly feel obligated to include. Heartfelt scenes like Anna reasonably explaining her faith and her anxieties about death to another patient her age dying of cancer are suddenly interrupted by the other girl’s father playing a bitter atheist; guess what happens to him by the film’s end? Many of the film’s corny contrivances (including Queen Latifah’s thankless “helpful stranger”) are almost explained away as the “miracles” of community and concern for one’s fellow man, only for the film to push too far and pin it all on God. You can almost see onscreen where the understated, faith-tinged family drama has to fit the broader evangelical beats that Affirm Films promises its audience.
There are plenty of fantastic films with Christian messages, but Miracles From Heaven is more interested in simplistic proselytizing to a heavily evangelical market that just wants their own existing beliefs confirmed. This is what makes the film so frustrating to watch; for the vast majority of its runtime, it’s essentially a good (if not great) family drama about a mother blindsided by the realities of her daughter’s illness, and her resulting crisis of faith. That’s something that could have crossover appeal. But by the time a tree cures a small child’s illness, Miracles abandons any pretense of subtlety or ambiguity, and becomes the kind of film where a little girl smugly proclaims about those who don’t believe her heavenly experience that “they’ll get there when they get there.” Hopefully the same can one day be said for films like Miracles from Heaven.