Opening Wednesday, March 16

I confess I had Miracles From Heaven pegged as another anti-science salvo from the Christian-cinema juggernaut (see also God’s Not Dead and Heaven Is For Real). After all, the film’s trailer, which gives away its entire plot, emphasizes that miracles can achieve what science cannot. I was interested to see how such a polemic makes its case.

But surprisingly, Miracles From Heaven is more critical of the medical establishment­­’s economics and power dynamics, in which doctors don’t take patients seriously, than it is of secular science. Ultimately, it presents a world in which God and science coexist, and it deals with the major, unsexy problem American families now facehow one person’s sickness can bring an entire family to the brink of bankruptcywith a refreshing honesty that mainstream Hollywood can’t match.

Based on the true story of a girl who develops a mysterious and severe stomach disorder, Anna Beam (Kylie Rogers), the film details her family’s sacrifices and her miraculous recovery after a freak accident. The latter is a reward for Anna’s superhuman faith in God, a regular tenet of evangelical traditions: To be healed, you must believe.

But you don’t have to buy that in order to identify with the film’s structural critique. Jennifer Garner unleashes her native Texas accent as Christy Beam, a mother who advocates fiercely for her daughter against a largely uncaring medical establishment.

The film has many of its genre’s trappings, from sincerely shredding Christian alt-rockers to a pristine, candy-colored mise-en-scène in which people always seem to be wearing their Sunday best. But the glossy surface is not a mere genre convention. All the majestic real estate and gleaming sport utility vehicles foretell the film’s central crisis, a problem at least as serious as Anna’s medical disorder: financial precariousness.

Behind all the seeming prosperity of the Beams’ large horse farm, a monstrous, gnawing debt threatens to financially sink them when Anna falls ill. Christy remarks that they had to pull “every last bit of equity out of the house” to fund her husband’s veterinary practice. “Equity” is not a word you hear often in Hollywood films, but it’s one that haunts the Beams as they inch closer to losing their home because of overextended credit.

The other factor exacerbating the Beams’ financial woes is the sheer cost of medical care and their limited health insurance. They’re not the only ones in the film perpetually on the edge of financial ruin. Without an appointment, Christy takes Anna to Boston to see the one pediatric specialist in the country who might be able to help her. Christy implores the receptionist to let her see the doctor, insisting that her daughter is dying. “I’m just doing what I’m told,” the receptionist says. “I really need this job.”

Miracles From Heaven‘s Christian context opens up spaces that would be too queasy for a secular film; even the horror of a child’s death can be ameliorated by faith. In one scene, Anna admonishes Hailey, her cancer-patient hospital roommate, to not be afraid of death. With less competent actors, the scene could have fallen anywhere between treacly and creepy, but these two ten-year-olds seriously discussing mortality is genuinely moving. Rogers is superlative as Anna, alternating quite convincingly between cuteness and preternatural wisdom.

Patricia Riggen, known for directing secular Latino films like The 33 and Under the Same Moon, handles the religious aspects of Miracles with relative restraint. Not that the film isn’t dripping with a certain corninessit very much is. But while it questionably proposes faith as the solution to our nation’s lack of a social safety net, talking matter-of-factly about the nuts and bolts of that problem is commendable. That’s more than you can say for most major movies.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Where Credit Is Due.”

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