In the heart of the Easter and Passover season, it’s a welcome sight to see the wealth of films opening in theatres that speak to the core ideals of faith, kindness, belief, forgiveness, redemption. One such film, directed by Patricia Riggen and written by Randy Brown based on a true story, is “Miracles From Heaven”. Many may have read the autobiographical book of the same name written by Christy Beam about her family and, in particular, the story of her daughter Anna and her battle with an incurable – and deadly – motility disease. While the Beams’ story is founded in their great faith, it is the medical aspect of the situation that elevates the film, “Miracles From Heaven” for the masses thanks to a doctor who cares and a mother who refuses to give up on her child.
9-year old Anna Beam is wise beyond her years. An exceptional, fun-loving little girl, she lives in Texas with her mother Christy, large animal veterinarian father Kevin and her two sisters, Abbie and Adelynn. A devout family, church and God are the cornerstones of their world. But then the unthinkable happens to this seemingly perfect middle-class American family. Anna becomes gravely ill. Dismissed by doctor after doctor with diagnoses of lactose intolerance (which, much to the chagrin of the Beam sisters, means no pizza), stomach flu or acid reflux, Anna only gets worse. It is only through the sheer almost histrionic will of Christy during a particularly volatile and dangerous night in the local emergency room that they finally find a doctor who does the necessary testing and makes a proper diagnosis – a life-threatening motility disease that precludes Anna from digesting any food. And it’s incurable.
While Anna undergoes arduous lifestyle changes, including feeding tubes, more than ten medications multiple times a day and living in constant pain, Christy battles to get an appointment with the country’s foremost expert on the disease; a pediatric specialist at Boston Children’s Hospital named Dr. Nurko. Ultimately succeeding in seeing Dr. Nurko and having him take over Anna’s care, the journey becomes even longer and more difficult for the family as treatments aren’t working, Anna’s condition is worsening and the family is facing severe financial hardship. And then the day every parent dreads arrives. There is nothing more to be done for Anna.
On what is now her final trip home, Anna is outside climbing the old cottonwood tree in the yard, something she has done a thousand times before and as her older sister realizes, may be one of her last climbs. But old trees have a tendency to be brittle and break, as this one does, plunging Anna 30 feet down into the rotted out core. And it’s what happens in that fall and during the hours Anna lay unconscious inside on he ground at the base of the tree trunk that give us the real “Miracles From Heaven”.
Jennifer Garner is a force of nature as Christy Beam. Undeterred and unwavering in her love for her daughter, you see Garner’s own maternal instincts at play here. So strong is Garner that she makes your heart break, grieve and rejoice. As Anna, Kylie Rogers steals your heart and the film with a strength of performance rare to see in young actors. Welcome is a terrific, albeit abbreviated turn, by Queen Latifah as Angela, a woman in Boston who befriended the Beams on their first visit to Dr. Nurko. Latifah shines and never moreso than when on screen with Rogers.
A pure joy is Eugenio Derbez as Dr. Nurko. And yes, like the Beams and Angela, Dr. Nurko is the real doctor who treated Anna. Derbez brings both a “Patch Adams” air to Nurko in his comic demeanor with young patients (which according to Derbez and Beam is really how the man is) while turning on a dime with a heartbreaking gravitas when speaking with a parent. Going outside the comfort zone of his already multi-faceted acting talents with a dramatic bent which we have never before seen from Derbez, he viewed this as a welcome challenge. “First of all, for me it was a surprise to find out that the number one pediatrician about motility disorder in this country happens to be a Mexican. I was like, ‘Huh? How come a Mexican is the #1 pediatrician in the Boston Pediatric Clinic?’ It was for me an honor to portray this guy. Second, it was a challenge to portray a guy who exists. And three, to play this character who every single day you are dealing with kids who are about to die because this medical disease has no cure. Probably 80% of the patients that they treat, they don’t make it. So, I was like, ‘How can this guy that is always dealing with so much pain, how can he be so playful?” It was interesting for me and it was a challenge for me to portray these two sides. Those three things are what made me fall in love with the script.”
Directed by Patricia Riggen from a script by Randy Brown adapted from Christy Beam’s book, with “Miracles From Heaven” Riggen creates a sense of spiritual wonder that takes a core element of Anna Beam’s “miracle” – a cottonwood tree, and makes it a visual and emotional centerpiece. Approaching the film from the universality of the story, “I didn’t want to make a movie that was for one type of person only. I wanted to make a movie that everyone could relate to; if you’re religious or if you’re not religious or if you’re a little bit religious; [a film] that is open for interpretation. It doesn’t give you a single point a view. I want you to believe in it. It just lets you read it from your own perspective.” To accomplish this, Riggen created visual moments celebrating nature.
“Nature is by all means like a creation of God. It doesn’t fight the idea of God.” The visual grammar and use of light and color by Riggen and cinematographer Checco Varese is beautifully designed and executed and in key moments, ethereal, most notably in scenes in Atlanta where the film was shot and particularly at its world-famous aquarium and in a Monet-inspired garden. Striking a balance between the pain of Anna’s disease and the emotional pain of the situation, against the beauty and affirmation of life, it was important to Riggen “to have as many visual moments as I could with this movie. Again, for the reason of let’s let the audience have a good journey. It’s a very painful story. And if I don’t give them that breath of air and those visual moments, what am I gonna give them? Only pain. So that’s how I came up with all those moments to just really let the audience have good, beautiful, easy moments and then bring them back to the pain of the story, of the real story.”
Powerful, emotionally satisfying and uplifting, you’ll leave the theatre with a smile on your heart and a belief in “Miracles From Heaven”.
Directed by Patricia Riggen
Written by Randy Brown based on the book by Christy Beam
Cast: Jennifer Garner, Martin Henderson, Eugenio Derbez, Queen Latifah, Kylie Rogers