In recent years, there's been a mini-trend of faith-based films concerned with proving the existence of heaven. Based on true stories, films such as "Heaven Is for Real" and "90 Minutes in Heaven" take up this task. Ostensibly following on their heels is the Jennifer Garner-starring "Miracles From Heaven," based on an amazing — and weird — true story. But although the film is centered on Christian-based faith, it argues for the power of miracles that are more terrestrial and quotidian.
Garner plays Christy Beam, mother to Anna (Kylie Rogers), who suffers from a debilitating, incurable intestinal disorder. After months in the hospital, one day Anna is playing with her sister, climbing a tree, when she falls, headfirst, 30 feet inside the dead tree trunk. She is stuck for hours. When firefighters pull her out, not only is she unharmed, but she's miraculously cured. That premise is the one presented in all of the film's marketing. But "Miracles From Heaven" manages to be more than that.
Patricia Riggen, who also directed last year's "The 33," the story of the Chilean miner rescue, brings to life the despair felt by the family during Anna's illness. Much of the film is centered on Christy's tireless search for a cure for Anna. Losing her faith, questioning why such a small kid is in such pain, Christy has a hard time recognizing the small miracles that occur daily during their ordeal — the small kindnesses of a receptionist who helps her, or a friendly waitress, Angela (Queen Latifah), who offers friendship when Christy and Anna need it most.
Even the love shown by their specialist, Dr. Nurko (Eugenio Derbez), is in itself a small miracle. We come to realize that the larger, more amazing miracles are made up of all these small tokens of love and selflessness.
Riggen effectively creates a sense of how intimidating hospitals and medical procedures are for a child, often shooting from Anna's perspective. The emphasis on Anna and Christy's experience of these trials is a smart choice, as both Garner and Rogers are strong, charismatic performers. Garner is compelling as the dedicated mom questioning everything she believes while fighting for her daughter's life, and young Rogers gives an impressive performance as Anna struggling to maintain her sunny outlook while coping with pain and suffering.
In terms of religion, Riggen and writer Randy Brown, who adapted Christy Beam's book, emphasize the power of community offered by the Beams' church, which is of the contemporary, fun, spiritual-rock-band variety. But even this tightknit group has its ups and downs, especially when some question Anna's ordeal.
While the film runs a bit long, and the heartstrings-tugging becomes overwrought, overall, this family melodrama is surprisingly effective, even for those of little faith. There are those who can choose to see it as unassailable evidence that heaven exists, but the film reaches beyond that audience and provides confirmation of the more human miracles that exist in everyday life, if you choose to see them.
Walsh is a Tribune News Service critic.
'Miracles From Heaven'
MPAA rating: PG, for thematic material, including accident and medical images
Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes