By Marlene DeJesus
Miracles from Heaven (2015) is a drama film, based on real life events. Directed by Patricia Riggen. Ms. Riggen is known for films like Under the Same Moon (2007) about immigration, Girl in Progress about growing up, and The 33 released this year about the Chilean miners. All of Ms. Riggen movies show a connection to real life issues, however, this movie conveys a compelling story of an 11 year old, Anna, who is diagnosed with a rare digestive disorder, who by a miracle is cured from such disorder. This movie underlying message goes further than just a miracle from heaven. It illustrates a family’s struggle in unfortunate troubling times and how they try to handle it.
In this film adaptation the director casts Jennifer Garner as Christy Beam Mother of Anna), Kylie Rodgers as Anna Beam, Martin Henderson as Kevin Beam (father of Anna), Brighton Sharbino as Abbie Beam (sister), Courtney Fansier as Adelyn Beam (sister), Queen Latifah as Angela a friend in times of need, and Eugenio Derbez as Dr. Nurko (world renown specialist) among many others all whom play an important role in this feel good movie.
Story/narrative– This movie was filmed in a simple straight forward fashion that chronologically explains the sequence of events objectively. Based on a linear structure the film’s exposition starts with a family who are middle class live in a small town in Texas, in a farm and are of Christian faith. The interrelationship within this family is close knit and highly based on faith. Every Sunday the family gets all dressed up and goes to church. The church is this upbeat musical high energy setting that engages the audience before Pastor Scott begins his sermons. Complications begin when Anna keeps waking up in the middle of the night vomiting and with stomach pains.
The conflict intensifies, when after having been at the ER four times for the same issue. Both parents Christy and Kevin had enough with the superficial prognosis of Anna (she had been previously diagnosed lactose and tolerant but being lactose free kept giving her pains) and they demand the doctor to figure out what Anna has because it is not normal. After several exams and an X-Ray doctors diagnose Anna with Small Bowel Motility Disorder- an abdominal disorder that prohibits the body from processing any food. It is a rare disorder that has no cure. As a result doctors give Anna short period of time to live and recommend Anna to see world renown specialist Dr. Nurko. The film then makes a shift from the merry happy family to that of a concerned desperate family in search for answers. The film projects this by making a shift with dull lightning, night settings and un-shapely costume changes.
The plot thickens when in the midst of dealing with the financial medical issues Christy desperate to help her daughter decides to fly to Boston with Anna and personally present her case to this specialist. In Boston when receptionist finds out that Anna does not have an appointment the film takes an emotional intensity and by manipulating the camera and shooting close-up the audience is able to identify with Christy in her absolute desperation to help her daughter get better. This following scene is emotional and raw; Christy desperately and using an urgent tone, explains to the receptionist every single medication Anna is on at every hour of the day and how the dramatic shift has changed the life of a little girl that loved to run, play sports and climb trees. The receptionist touched by Christy’s desperation tells her she will call if there is any opening. In comes into play Angela’s character a funny uplifting waiter that discovers that Anna and Christy are from out of town feels and perceives the stress this family endures and are in need of an uplifting friend.
What is interesting to see is the symbolism and foreshadowing of a painting Anna becomes mesmerized with, a lengthy horizontal abstract canvas that iridescently shows a mix of calming colors of blue, white, grey, green, all portrayed from what seems to be…water refection that is disturbed and as a result creates ripples of a beautiful mix of colors. Ironically viewers later discover that this painting illustrates part of her journey through Heaven. This painting also represents an amulet of good luck since the next day Christy gets a call that Dr. Nurko has agreed to take Anna’s case. At this point one can see that this movie was filmed using a tight structure, where every single action and every single word of a dialogue advances the plot.
The climax is presented when Anna spends the rest of her days admitted at Dr. Nurko’s hospital trying to make her condition bearable till she dies. Anna character goes into depression and is projected by a sickly image of dark eyes, saggy bags and whitewashed lifeless skin the setting outside the hospital is cloudy and foggy portraying the characters depression further.
The high point in this plot is when Anna decides to climb an old hollow tree following a white butterfly. Anna ends up falling down the trunk of the hollow tree. She spends over three hours unconscious while firefighters and EMS try to get her out of the tree trunk. Throughout this whole period the white butterfly stays next to Anna. Once again we see how Riggen has incorporated symbolism in this story. This white butterfly represents transformation, resurrection, time and vulnerability, the metamorphosis of a butterfly implies keeping faith, lastly the color of the butterfly represents purity and innocence. This all translates to Anna’s condition and her current state in the plot.
In a desperation Christy character breaks down and calls upon faith through prayer which starts a chain of prayers from everyone present at the scene until Anna’s body is taken out of the tree lifeless. For religious viewers the power of prayer brings cure but also the standing bowing position used for prayer symbolizes reverence, worship, readiness to serve and preparation for battle. In this case Christy humbles herself as the absolute desperate mother who seeks God’s help so her daughter can overcome such fall.
The whole emotional drama ends in a denouement when audience finds out Anna is alive without any broken bones and just a scratch, after several tests doctors diagnose Anna’s condition as a spontaneous remission when there is no scientific explanation to an incurable cure.
Characters- The developing characters or round characters are Anna and Christy (who are deeply affected by the action of the plot). Garner- who’s emphatic, emotional, desperation and maternal performance struggles to find a cure for her daughter while trying to maintain her faith. Yet undergo internal psychological conflict with Anna’s condition, feeling helpless as a mother while her daughter’s days are counted. She also suffers external conflict with her personal struggle with faith; within her desperation in trying to find answers she loses her faith because she cannot explain why a little girl full of life has to endure excruciating pain and a life threatening condition. Her character alienates from her church as ironically some church ladies suggest Anna’s condition is a result of her parent’s sin an irony depicted in the story. Anna on the other hand struggles to maintain her cheerful personality and a positive outlook of life with her condition and unlike Christy’s character Anna never loses her faith, ironically, in spite of depression, she peacefully comes into terms with death. Her character shows a remarkable resiliency despite her condition. Yet we see her go through an internal psychological conflict with her image. Her disorder causes a protruding stomach that consequently makes her look she is pregnant at 11 years of age; which gives her trouble getting dressed. She can’t wear jeans and she has a hard time finding shirts that fit her without her bulging stomach showing. Her character becomes self-conscious of her image.
On the contrary to round characters Kevin, Abbie, Adelynn, Pastor Scott, Angela and Dr. Nurko are flat or static characters who remain the same throughout the film, do not undergo internal psychological conflict at least not as intense as Christy and Anna characters do. The audience saw Kevin’s struggle when he has to take care of his daughters while Christy is in Boston with Anna; while working longer hours in an effort to make more money and make amends. Abbie’s character struggles when her aspirations to play for her school’s soccer team are not possible because her dad forgets to take her to the tryouts a result of his long working hours. Adelynn’s character pretty much stays the same throughout the movie. Pastor Scott character helps Christy restore her faith in God and be there for the family in times of need. Angela’s character is introduced as the friend you need in times of need. Dr. Nurko’s character is the upbeat humorous doctor that lightens the plot and intrigues everyone with his Elmo tie.
Setting– Setting has a lot of symbolism with the sky and clouds- as a form of divination, metaphorically translates to the future, change and foreshadows anticipation of problems. Throughout Anna’s hospital visits skylights are widely referenced in the movie, which symbolizes enlightenment and guidance certainly a connection to spirituality. A lot of the movie is shot outside the Beams house which makes reference to the hollow tree symbolizing the tree of life, but also foretells instability.
In Anna’s trip to Boston she insists on going to an aquarium, where fish makes an interesting presence in the movie. Fish in an ancient symbol of Christianity that implies spirituality, luck, energy and nourishment. All of which compliments Anna’s faith during her terminal condition. The water fish swim in are in admittedly Anna’s state of mind. Moreover in Anna’s visit to heaven she is exposed to a garden of hydrangeas which is a Japanese flower with a historical tradition for apologies and gratitude in addition to the tradition they also represent love and genuine emotions. Besides the garden she also crosses a lake in order to get closer to a ray of light (Symbolizing God), this brings allegory to a sense of calmness, piece of mind and security. Last but not least Dr. Nurko’s famous Elmo tie is a metaphor for a promise, unfinished business, or obligations he has as a physician to care and cure his patients.
Conclusion– The ending is a tying up of loose ends giving it a sense of completion. Has an upbeat ending with strong uplifting music and speech. Film teaches you that besides God and the heavens life is full of little miracles every single day and we are so wrapped up in monotony that we do not see them. Hence the term, Stop and smell the roses.
Cinematography- Movie was filmed using objective point of view- when dealing with family matters. A subjective viewpoint- as plot is introduced and thickens and indirect subjective viewpoint- with close up showing intensity in climax of the film giving the audience the feeling of closeness to the character and make them part of the action.
Camera work- this movie used an objective camera approach causing it’s’ audience to feel like a sideline observer. The audience see the plot unravel from a distance as this is a memoir and therefore allow a concentration on the actor’s performance. In fact at times there was a mix in the use of static camera and close up shots as it produces the window effect and emotional distance between camera and the viewer but when characters dealt with intense emotions close up shots were used in order to emotionally and intellectually viewers identify with the point of view, and see the story through their eyes. Director uses natural, normal positioning of the camera for a fluid blend of image, sound and motion.
Music/sound- The composer Carlo Siliotto, showcased music by religious band Third Day. The music approach was diegetic where it was present throughout the action on the scene for church and heaven. An instrumental piece managed the pace of the film. The actors’ dialogue gave the film a natural rhythm with human speech, by accelerating speech, intensifying the plot and bringing out pulsing life to the story.
Color- the use of color in this movie reflects psychological and emotional strain, for instance Garner’s 3-dimentionality can be shown in her choice of clothing; muted and cold when climax approaches, and colorful and warm for church. To intensify an actors’ emotions the house would show dull low lighting; yet the outside was always bright vivid colors always sunny good weather giving a lot of importance to the outside setting. Colors are used as a transitional device to point out the changes in the plot but also matches the mood of the characters in the film. Heavens play a surrealistic use of color whether it is seen from Anna’s subconscious, the heavens presents itself as a garden with a lot of harmonizing blend of colors that makes it symbolic, a field of hydrangeas, trees, and water transparency.
Director’s style- Riggen plays well the emotions the strain and the desperation facing the family. She exposes how intimidating hospitals and medical procedures can be for young kids. Dr. Nurkos performance brings humor and light to an otherwise frightening setting. Riggen use of the supernatural is evident and her use of divinity anchors small miracles though friends and the kindness of strangers. She makes a distinct division between reality and illusion and changing of time.
My Analysis- Although I respect the director for making realistic films (based on true life events), I dislike the Hallmark cookie cutter type of approach she used which did not elevate the film; on the other hand the film was too long. For instance Angela’s only role as a character was to provide friendship and light-heartedness it neither helped nor did it alter the plot, her character was just static. In my own view Dr. Nurko’s performance already brought the film buoyancy and Adelynn humorous spark was not exploited enough. However I did appreciate the overlying ending message of the movie, that life is full of little miracles.