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Reel Life VS. Real Life: Miracles from Heaven

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It’s not all the gospel truth, but the Christian drama Miracles from Heaven sticks pretty close to the real mom’s narrative...

There’s a point where facts stop and faith begins.

Matters of religious belief and cold hard facts obviously have a complicated relationship. For many of us, there’s a lot more to our lives than just what we can see with our eyes or even comprehend. There’s a point where facts stop and faith begins.

Of course, that’s something Hollywood understands, too, even if it maintained a more secular disposition until The Passion of the Christ proved there was a huge mass of spiritual-minded moviegoers in the U.S. and Canada. Having long neglected these viewers, studios were suddenly courting them as best they could with their own examples of the “faith-based entertainment” already being produced for the Christian market.

Hollywood now regularly releases righteously themed flicks — recent examples include the Joseph Fiennes biblical mystery Risen and last summer’s remake of Ben-Hur.

Jennifer Garner headlines another very noteworthy example. Like many faith-based movies, Miracles from Heaven is based on the experiences of a family who believed their ordinary lives were changed by a divine intervention. Garner plays Christy Beam, a Texas mom devastated when she learns that her middle daughter, Annabel, is afflicted with rare gastrointestinal disorders. The Beams’ fight to keep Anna alive takes many turns, none of which is as dramatic as the seemingly miraculous event that Beam shared in the bestselling memoir that spawned the film.

It’s not surprising that Miracles from Heaven was produced by the same team as Heaven Is for Real. That 2014 hit was also based on a real family’s experience that goes beyond our understanding. Since Heaven Is for Real grossed more than $100 million US, it’s also no wonder that Miracles From Heaven follows the template pretty closely, which means some elements of the saga are different from what Beam’s readers might have learned. But surely those are pretty minor when it comes to tests of faith; here’s what our truth-meter discovered.

Christy Beam’s ordinary family existence in small-town Texas is upended when the life of her 10-year-old daughter Annabel is jeopardized by two rare digestive disorders.

TRUE (ALMOST) — Annabel was actually five years younger when doctors determined that her condition was much more serious than their earlier diagnoses of acid reflux and lactose intolerance. But the facts of her illness are otherwise accurate and thoroughly tragic. In the case of one condition — known as pseudo-obstruction motility disorder — 100 new cases are diagnosed among American kids each year. There is no cure. 

Desperate to see one of the few doctors who could help, Christy takes Annabel to Boston and successfully pleads to see a gastroenterologist named Dr. Samuel Nurko, despite not having an appointment.

SLIGHTLY FUDGED — They actually had an appointment, so this adjustment is one of several that have been made to ensure that Garner gets a big dramatic moment (she’s in Hollywood’s first rank of weepers). But Nurko is indeed the name of the doctor and, like his movie surrogate, he likes to wear a tie emblazoned with Elmo. Indeed, Nurko seems so good with young patients, he could be the new Patch Adams.

While in Boston, Christy and Annabel make a valuable friend in a waitress named Angela Bradford.

TRUE-ISH — Perhaps sensing that the largely grim story of the Beams’ medical ordeal could use some upbeat moments, the filmmakers latched onto a minor detail about a waitress whom the Beams befriended after Annabel accidentally knocked over a glass of Sprite in her restaurant. So what if the woman was white and the movie’s Angela is played by Queen Latifah? After all, there’s not a single movie that wouldn’t be improved by the addition of Queen Latifah.

Christy’s struggle to understand how a loving God could let Annabel suffer causes her to question her faith and stop going to church.

FALSE — Though she admits that she faced huge tests and challenges, Beam has told interviewers that she never lost her religious convictions, unlike Garner’s more anguished character.

After years in chronic pain, Annabel is miraculously cured after she falls 30 feet headfirst down a hollow tree and emerges not only unscathed but also apparently healed of her disorders.

ASTONISHINGLY TRUE — So this is going to be a big one for viewers to swallow, but that’s what makes Annabel’s story so extraordinary. While playing with her sisters, she really did have a fall that left her stuck in an old cottonwood tree for five hours. In the wake of the accident, her symptoms mysteriously abated. Since her disorders likely had neurological causes, Nurko believes the blow to her head might have led to this “spontaneous remission.” According to the Beam family, Annabel is now living without any pain or other symptoms of the disorders.

While inside the tree, Annabel had a near-death experience that entailed visiting heaven and meeting Jesus.

WHO CAN SAY? — As was the case for Heaven Is for Real (about a three-year-old who recounted his own trip upstairs while clinically dead), this is something viewers will have to take on faith. Either way, Miracles from Heaven's candy-coloured vision of heaven is a trip to behold, regardless of whether or not you believe you’re heading there someday.

Jason Anderson writes about movies for Cinema Scope, FFWD, and the Toronto Star.