Continuing with the series of articles by film critics sharing their favorite films, today we have movie reviewer Miranda A. Uyeh, editor at To Be a Person.
There were a couple of great Christian movies in 2016, some of them, blockbusters even. Today, I’d like to talk about Patricia Riggen’s Miracles from Heaven. After much analysis, there are a couple of reasons why I believe this movie did as well as it did:
It depicted realistic human struggles. Throughout the movie, we witness the character arc of Christy Beam (Jennifer Garner). She begins as a woman of faith who is content as a wife and mother, and as a child of God. When Anna, her daughter, falls sick, Christy’s struggles begin: her questions to God, her reaction to gossiping church members, and even her irritation and conflict with her husband’s stand in choosing to hold unto faith in God despite their seemingly hopeless circumstance. This movie doesn’t hold back in revealing the imperfections and flaws found in a Christian, and how these flaws could be amplified in the place of trials. Christians, like everyone else, struggle and sometimes fail. To depict Christians as perfect people with perfect lives is unrealistic (the movie showed that the Beams didn’t have it easy paying for Anna’s medical bills). And to portray Christians as people who have it all figured out is near condescending.
It depicted God and His work [as sometimes unseen and not fully understood] in a unique way. God isn’t seen as a character in this movie, but His hand is seen throughout the story. Some faith-based movies go wrong in trying to insinuate that God, His work, and the reason for how He chooses to operate can be easily understood or explained. This, unfortunately, isn’t true. In my opinion, the best of stories are those that attempt to show His love, patience, grace, and mercy. These stories are also not afraid to show that God does work in His own time and not ours, albeit despite much pain and struggles that require perseverance and longsuffering from His children, but still maintain the truth that bad circumstances don’t change the fact that He is a loving Father. Miracles from Heaven showed this well.
The Case of Spiritual Jargon. A lot of filmmakers of faith-based movies desire an audience that comprises both Christians and non-Christians. Unfortunately, the manner in which they execute the stories doesn’t help much. It has to be fully appreciated that a good number of people in the non-Christian audience have no sound knowledge of the Bible, and so cannot comprehend major parts of the dialogue used by the characters. This is something that secular filmmaking has found a way around. This can be seen in a lot of spiritual movies such as Harry Potter, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings. Take for instance, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. The words, “Sorcerer’s Stone,” wasn’t just thrown into the story and the audience expected to catch-on. A scenario was created where the stone was explained, and then this explanation was later applied in the story. In Miracles from Heaven, the word “miracle” was explained in the very first scene, and then it was applied throughout the story. In the end, Christy Beam got up to the pulpit in her church and finalized the meaning of a miracle in a way that EVERYONE (Christian and non-Christian) could understand. In other words, the jargon was explained.
The Common Ground. When a viewer cannot relate to your story in any way, they cannot enjoy or walk away with anything. Common ground has to be created for different categories of people to meet. One scene in Miracles from Heaven that did this well was when Ben—the reporter, and also the father of Haley, the girl with cancer who was Anna’s roommate in the hospital—expressed concern to Christy Beam about Anna telling Haley about God. He later mentioned, “I just don’t want to get her (Haley) hopes up.” Christy nodded and said, “I understand that more than you know.” Rarely have I seen a scene in a faith-based movie where the topic of God is discussed between a Christian and non-Christian, and it ends amicably and with mutual understanding, empathy and sympathy. In my opinion, that particular scene was executed excellently. This sends a message that it is possible for Christians to find common ground with non-Christians, and that non-Christians don’t have to be afraid to engage in a discussion with a Christian where they can air their fears and concerns—no matter how conflicting it may appear—without the conversation turning sour. In other words, we can coexist because we’ve all faced circumstances that teach and allow us to relate to each other’s struggles.
The supposedly “unnecessaries.” These are the parts of the movie that don’t exactly move the plot forward, but rather add color to it. They show our humanness in a way that is endearing. In Miracles from Heaven, it can be seen in the beginning of the movie where Anna and her siblings rode the tire as they played together, and the short conversation that followed between Christy Beam and her husband just before they left for church. This can also be seen when Christy, Anna, and Angela tour the city of Boston, visit the aquarium, and finally, the gallery; it was interesting to observe the emotions that played on Anna’s face as she stared at a particular painting, leaving the interpretation of that moment to the viewer. This was even displayed in the family pillow fight at the hospital, or when Dr. Nurco handed his tie to Christy Beam towards the end. These parts, and others unmentioned, don’t necessarily move the plot forward, but they make the story more beautiful and less morbid.
What about the simply “moral” theme? So much emphasis is laid on a spiritual message that sometimes a filmmaker forgets the good, old-fashioned moral theme that can be neatly tucked within the story in such a way that it coexists beautifully with the spiritual theme. It was interesting to note that Christy Beam decided to fly Anna to Boston even though they hadn’t been given an appointment, not because she believed “by faith” that God would make a way or “grant them favor” at the hospital, but because of the spirit of hope that pushes a person to make an effort and not give up. In the end, Anna didn’t get well because of any effort that Christy made (clearly, God healed Anna), but the moral message of “don’t ever give up” displayed by Christy stuck beautifully. This is something that every viewer, Christian and non-Christian, can walk away with.
Nuggets of Wisdom vs Preachy. In Doc Benson’s words (paraphrased), “It’s not smart to try to teach the entire Bible in 90 minutes.” To attempt to do so is to overdose or overload the viewers with too much at once—even the Christian viewers! (This consequently creates the above mentioned scenario of spiritual jargon.) In paying attention to Pastor Scott’s words, I noticed that the scenes were more likely to have better impact because the character, Pastor Scott, issued out doses of wisdom and God’s Word in simple nuggets as opposed to preachiness that could leave a viewer overloaded or even confused. If you study Jesus’ manner of teaching, you’d notice He never said more than was needed. When He did speak, His words were so wise and that they were undebatable. The teachers of the law, on the other hand, preferred to be preachy, and so could never win. This rule should be applied in faith-based filmmaking.
We need to laugh too! The scenes where Angela (Queen Latifah) came in were glorious! LOVED. EACH. OF. THEM! The part where she introduced Christy and Anna to her car, and then tried to open the passenger door (with her leg!) was pleasantly humorous! We, the viewers, needed the in-between laughs for a less morbid feel.
The one thing (I felt) Miracles from Heaven was missing…
Jesus wasn’t mentioned once.
Does that mean that Jesus has to be mentioned in EVERY single faith-based movie? I don’t believe so. However, when it becomes obvious that some scenes would be better with His name in it, but He isn’t mentioned, it leaves the scene rather sad, and the expected impact, probably less. America (and other parts of the world) doesn’t have as much problem with the mention of God as with the mention of Jesus, but Christian filmmakers should not forget that Jesus is integral to Christianity—that is, there would be no Christianity without Jesus. We have to come to a place where we accept that He cannot be removed from the equation of propagating the gospel, even in faith-based films (or entertainment purposes). If we don’t accept this, then what is the point of what we’re doing? In Miracles from Heaven, I couldn’t help but sense a behind-the-camera fear that led to the deliberate cut of Jesus’s name from the script. In other words, when filmmakers believe in their hearts that a scene needs the name of Jesus in it, then they should not be afraid to put His name in it.
ABOUT MIRANDA A. UYEH
Miranda A. Uyeh is the founder and editor of To Be A Person (TBAP), the author of Christian Romance/Suspense fiction, To Die Once: Child of Grace #1, a Mogul Global Ambassador, and a copywriter. She was a one-time shortlisted judge for the Inspy Awards, in 2014, in the Contemporary Romance & Romance/Suspense category. In September, 2016, Miranda was honored to be one of 500 book reviewers across the world invited to help launch Tim Tebow’s new release, Shaken.
When Miranda isn’t reviewing and supporting Christian & inspirational books/film/music or hosting interviews on TBAP, she’s writing, reading for fun or relaxing with a good movie! When she gets bored with the world, she talks to God about it! *wink*
Miranda also releases a free quarterly book-to-movie catalog which alerts Christian filmmakers or filmmakers interested in producing Christian/Christian-themed movies of books with wonderful stories that can be adapted into film. You can connect with Miranda via TBAP, twitter or facebook.