A cancer-stricken boy reaches out and touches the life of a hard-drinking mailman — and, for good measure, the lives of everyone else around him — in the clunkily earnest Christian-themed tearjerker “Letters to God.” Bearing echoes of “Pay It Forward,” “My Sister’s Keeper” and even “Miracle on 34th Street,” this faith-based/fact-based inspirational weepie allows no one to escape the saintlike glow of its terminally ill protagonist. While only the converted will likely see the redemption behind the manipulation, pic delivers a strong enough dose of spiritual saccharine to yield solid if not heavenly returns from its trusty target audience.
In sending “Letters” out to 900 theaters nationwide, Vivendi Entertainment clearly hopes to repeat the success of “Fireproof,” the Kirk Cameron-starring marriage-in-crisis drama that grossed a surprising $33 million in 2008, reminding the industry that a significant number of moviegoers also happen to be churchgoers. The more family-friendly “Letters” was helmed by “Fireproof” producer David Nixon, though its true auteur may be co-director Patrick Doughtie, who based the script (credited to himself and three other writers) on his son’s battle with a rare brain tumor called medulloblastoma.
The same illness afflicts the movie’s Tyler Doherty (Tanner Maguire), a sweet-tempered 8-year-old adoringly fussed over by his widowed mom, Maddy (Robyn Lively), and mildly resented by his teenage brother, Ben (Michael Christopher Bolten). Confined to his bed at home when he’s not getting chemo treatments or hanging out with irrepressible best friend Sam (Bailee Madison, “Brothers”), Tyler spends his free time addressing letters to God. These epistolary prayers fall into the possession of the Dohertys’ mailman, Brady (Jeffrey S.S. Johnson), a troubled soul whose Irish name is perhaps meant to function as convenient shorthand for “alcoholic.”
Unsure what to do with the letters, Brady casually checks out the local church, while building the sort of close friendship with the Dohertys (and others along his mail route) that occasionally gives the picture the feel of a homespun ’50s suburban drama with evangelical overtones. Awkwardly scripted and staged, pic veers from infernally perky feel-good moments and pre-packaged life lessons to lump-in-throat melodramatics, while forcing its talented cast to contend with huge swaths of exposition (though Brady gets some helpful flashbacks to a shameful DUI arrest).
At various points, Brady, Ben and even Maddy serve as stand-ins for the skeptical viewer, and “Letters to God” is at its most effective when it deals directly with the challenge of not just finding faith but keeping it. Scenes of wise mentor figures praying aloud for others may prove discomfiting for some auds, but productively so; for the open-minded, they should register as honest, unabashed expressions of Christian devotion in practice.
Considerably less honest is the film’s treatment of Tyler, a pint-sized prayer warrior scrubbed clean of character flaws, personality shadings or anything else that might make him an especially interesting or believable person; he’s merely there to edify and inspire others to greater depths of faith. The filmmakers’ desire to pay tribute to Tyler’s real-life counterpart is understandable and wrenching, but it’s more wrenching than the film itself, which reduces its hero to a beaming totem of noble suffering. Result might prove more distancing than bracing to nonbelievers: The God of “Letters” is one who punishes the young so as to teach the old a lesson. That’s not just clumsy dramaturgy; it’s bad theology.
Pic boasts fairly slick production values in line with its $3 million budget (about six times as much as “Fireproof”). Colin O’Malley’s twinkly score has all the insistence of a preacher bent on getting a reaction.