The rise of the so-called "faith-based film" — typically low-budget films that are almost uniformly evangelical — has occurred largely in a bubble of its own like a sheltering harbor for Christian believers at that heathen meeting place: the multiplex.
"Miracles From Heaven," a film whose title even Hallmark would blush at, is an attempt to expand the reach of the faith-based film a little beyond the flock. To do so, it has armed itself with two things: the star power of Jennifer Garner and a full barrage of sentimentality. The fate of a sick 10-year-old girl precariously hangs in the balance.
The film, directed by Patricia Riggen ("The 33"), is adapted from the memoir of Christy Beam, whose Texas family is jolted when one of their three daughters, Anna (played sweetly by Kylie Rogers), is found to suffer from a rare disorder that leaves her chronically unable to digest food.
"Based on real events" is how the film presents itself, and some of its best qualities are in depicting elements of life — the frightful anxiety of parenthood, the struggle to find meaning amid hardship — that don't often make it into the movies.
But the course of "Miracles From Heaven" is never in doubt. When Garner as Beam intones in the opening voiceover questions of where miracles come from, the film's title has already stated the answer. Just as certainly will it turn out well in the end for Christy, who strays from her faith while watching her daughter's belly painfully swell, and Anna, whose health deteriorates while the family desperately searches for a knowing doctor.
For those girding for religious propaganda, that is here. And the Beams — a white, churchgoing, flannel-shirt wearing Texas family with horses on their pastoral, homespun ranch — offer little that deviates from the most stereotyped, limited view of who's Christian.
But to the film's credit, its more distinguishing characteristic is an earnestness to recognize the small and large gestures of kindness that alter lives. It's not the most radical epiphany, but in "Miracles From Heaven," it feels genuine.
Garner is, of course, a better performer than many of these films have had before, and her white-knuckle maternal worry propels the movie to something a touch better than the Lifetime movie you'd expect. Several years after "Dallas Buyers Club," Garner is back in hospital halls, this time as a pleading parent of a patient.
Along the way, a handful of people brighten Anna's journey: a playful doctor (Eugenio Derbez), an exuberantly friendly waitress (Queen Latifah, incredulously playing a Bostonian), a thoughtful boy at school.
"Miracles are everywhere" is the movie's concluding ethos, something that might also be said of Terrence Malick's bursting-with-life films, the latest of which was his Los Angeles version of the prodigal son tale, "Knight of Cups." The connection between radically different elevations of moviemaking is maybe a little silly.
But it's a reminder that, just as "miracles" are all around, spirituality in the cinema is, too, and it should be sought out in films that exceed the narrow boundaries of "faith-based."
What: "Miracles From Heaven." Directed by Patricia Riggen. A Sony Pictures release
Star rating (out of four):
With: Jennifer Garner, Kylie Rogers, Martin Henderson, Queen Latifah, Eugenio Derbez
MPAA rating: PG (parental guidance suggested — some material may not be suitable for children) for "thematic material, including accident and medical images"
Running time: 1 hour 49 minutes
Playing at: Berkshire Mall Cinema 10 (Lanesborough)