Let’s start by acknowledging that I am a cynical asshole and not at all this movie’s target audience. Miracles from Heaven was not made for me but I have to review it anyway, and I do so knowing full well that what I identify as problems won’t register with the movie’s intended audience. Based on a book by Christy Beam about her daughter Anna’s devastating illness and mysterious recovery, Miracles from Heaven is a perfectly nice movie about perfectly nice people that is made to make other perfectly nice people feel perfectly nice. What problems it has do not get in the way of everyone feeling perfectly nice at the end.
The Beams are a good ol’ down home family in Burleson, Texas. (They tell you several times where they are from. Texas pride.) At the beginning of the movie, they have an idyllic life on their farm, with animals galore. We meet Christy (Jennifer Garner), your typical happy homemaker, shepherding her three perfect blonde daughters to school every day and asking them to share one of their prayers every night. The Beams are a pretty family in a pretty house and go to church every Sunday and host the BBQ afterwards. People say things like, “I don’t know how you do it all!” to Christy.
Then one night middle daughter Anna (Kylie Rogers, The Whispers) starts screaming about abdominal pain and throwing up. After several misdiagnoses—doctors in Miracles from Heaven are largely portrayed as callous know-it-alls who are unhelpful to distressed parents, never mind the mental and emotional gymnastics an ER doctor must perform in order to function at their incredibly stressful and literally life-or-death job—finally one doctor determines that Anna has a rare illness that blocks her brain’s signals to her gastrointestinal tract, paralyzing it, which means she can’t digest anything, and there’s no cure. Anna is going to waste away.
None of the characters in Miracles are particularly well realized, except for mother Christy—the movie is adapted from a book she wrote—and so it’s all on Garner to sell this movie. And damn if she doesn’t make it work. She is totally convincing as a distraught mother faced with a terrible reality, and she nails not only Christy’s crisis of faith but also her determination to find help for her daughter. This is the best Garner’s been since Juno.
Eventually Christy takes Anna to see Dr. Nurko (Eugenio Derbez, an accomplished Mexican triple-threat best known for Vecinos and La familia P. Luche), a world-renowned pediatrician who is a tolerable Patch Adams. The best he can do for Anna, though, is palliative care, and the family nearly goes bankrupt trying to afford the plethora of medicine and constant trips to Boston to see Dr. Nurko. Queen Latifah shows up for a thankless role as Angela, a friend that Christy and Anna make in Boston, and John Carroll Lynch pops in as the Beams family pastor, who tries to support Christy even though she’s given up on church because God hasn’t healed her child.
The main problem with Miracles is that there isn’t enough story for a one hundred and nine minute movie, and instead of cutting twenty minutes out, director Patricia Riggen (The 33) inserts a couple Christian rock videos into the movie to pad the run time. The pacing is not great and stopping everything for a music video doesn’t help. Again, this probably won’t register with the intended audience at all because the Heartwarming Content never goes down. But it is a structural problem no one attempted to solve while making the movie.
Eventually, Anna falls out of a tree and hits her head which somehow cures her—the titular miracle—and Christy’s faith is restored. Also, Anna claims to have gone to heaven and spoken to God, which, okay. That’s the whole point of this movie existing, so fine. One of the nice touches Riggen inserts is showing Anna in heaven, which resembles a Monet painting she was taken with during a trip to a museum. It recalls What Dreams May Come’s portrayal of heaven, though it doesn’t go so far as to have heaven be made of paint. But it’s a nice connection to make anyway.
Miracles from Heaven will satisfy its intended audience and do absolutely nothing for anyone else. It has that pacing problem and lack of interesting characters problem, but Jennifer Garner gives a solid performance that makes the whole movie go. And this is not a character study, it’s a movie meant to make perfectly nice people feel perfectly nice, and it succeeds. I’m sure many perfectly nice people will enjoy Miracles from Heaven with their perfectly nice families and feel perfectly nice when it’s over.