The very premise of “Miracles From Heaven” offers an argument against its own existence. If there are miracles everywhere we look, who wants to waste time on a movie this middling? Not that faith-based audiences will object to the unapologetic manipulations in such an innocuous slice of inspirational hokum, especially when it’s served up with the utmost sincerity. Instead the frequently fickle crowd should turn out in droves for a pic that’s a spiritual successor in every way to 2014’s sleeper hit “Heaven Is for Real.” This similarly “based on a true story” tale of a child who claims to have visited heaven and lived to share the good news looks perfectly poised for a blessed run at the box office during the same Easter-season window.
Helmer Patricia Riggen’s pic (arriving months after her previous film, “The 33”) may be preaching to the choir, but those unlikely to sing along weren’t going to show up anyway. With that in mind, it’s almost surprising that “Miracles From Heaven” takes any risks at all. From a blunt acknowledgement of the holier-than-thou attitudes of certain churchgoers, to a sustained focus on a woman’s crisis of faith throughout her child’s life-threatening battle with a rare illness, the film isn’t all homilies and hallelujahs. Although there’s plenty of that, too.
Scribe Randy Brown’s adaptation is based on the memoir of Texas mother-of-three Christy Beam (played by Jennifer Garner), whose daughter Annabel (Kylie Rogers) developed chronic stomach problems as a preteen, was ultimately diagnosed with an intestinal motility disorder and nearly died. While Christy’s veterinarian husband Kevin (Martin Henderson) and their other two daughters — the eldest, Abbie (Brighton Sharbino), and the precocious youngest, Adelynn (Courtney Fansler) — did what they could to support Annabel, it’s Christy who labors endlessly to find a way to save her daughter’s life. Even if it means temporarily relocating to Boston and crashing the office of sought-after specialist Dr. Nurko (Eugenio Derbez, like a less cloying Patch Adams) without an appointment.
Christy’s fierce commitment to Annabel becomes the film’s backbone, and it’s a credit that the bulk of the running time is spent grappling with Annabel’s illness and the hopelessness that overtakes both mother and daughter. Getting the appropriate diagnosis was enough of an ordeal, but learning from Dr. Nurko that there is no cure pushes the family to the brink and causes Christy to back away from her formerly unshakeable faith.
In a welcome gender reversal from the father-son dynamic of “Heaven Is for Real,” Garner and Rogers deliver fully committed performances that credibly convey the physical and mental anguish endured by sick children and their caregivers. This is standard disease-of-the-week telepic stuff (and Riggen’s blandly antiseptic visual approach can hardly be dubbed cinematic), but rendered with enough detail to practically qualify as a horror movie for parents. As Annabel’s crippling pain takes its own toll on Christy, the film raises inevitable questions about God’s plans and what happens when a child loses her will to live. (After all, if heaven is waiting for real, why endure unthinkable misery?)
But eventually “Miracles From Heaven” gets around to its big miracle: Annabel’s spontaneous remission, a development with no medical explanation, after she suffers a terrifying fall into the center of a hollow cottonwood (convincingly reproduced by production designer David R. Sandefur) in the family’s backyard. The disappearance of her disease shocks everyone, but it’s Annabel’s gentle insistence that she took an out-of-body trip to heaven (depicted via visual effects somewhere between Peter Jackson’s garish “The Lovely Bones” and a Monet painting that captivates Annabel in a Boston museum) when she was unconscious that firmly reconnects Christy with her Christianity.
The whole ordeal is wrapped up in a bow when kindly Pastor Scott (an underused John Carroll Lynch) invites Christy to speak during church, where she delivers a quote dubiously attributed to Einstein (“There are only two ways to live your life. One as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle”) and a nonbelieving journalist (Wayne Pere), whose own daughter shared a hospital room with Annabel, springs to Christy’s defense after an outburst from a skeptical parishioner. Cue the slow clap-turned-standing ovation crescendo. It would be enough to make auds choke on sentimentality, if only that weren’t the reason they bought a ticket in the first place.
In a move to underline the story’s bona fides, the pic closes with footage of the actual Beam family happily at home. Seeing their smiling faces after everything we’ve witnessed may not prove the existence of miracles, but it’s sure to galvanize true believers to spread the word and boost the bottom line.