As she did in The 33, director Patricia Riggen introduces Miracles from Heaven’s characters by establishing one dominant trait that will define them throughout. Also as in that film, she shoots those characters early on at a beatific backyard barbecue, pushing in for idyllic close-ups of wholesome sights like ribs being basted and kids on rope swings to establish a family in the context of its community—a lively congregation led by the friendly, funny, and wise Pastor Scott (John Carroll Lynch). In short, the film’s first few minutes are engineered to make clear that, as Kevin Beam (Martin Henderson) tells his wife, Christy (Jennifer Garner), “It’s a good life, Christy Beam!”
Then their daughter, Anna (Kylie Rogers), begins to suffer from intestinal dysfunction that paralyzes part of her colon and Christy kicks into mother-tiger mode, bouncing her daughter from the local hospital in their Texas town to bigger ones in nearby Houston and finally Boston Children’s Hospital, where she puts her under the care of Dr. Nurko (Eugenio Derbez), a warmhearted joker and one of the world’s leading experts on Anna’s condition. The good doctor does what he can, but nothing seems to help until Anna has another medical emergency, which results in what the doctors call spontaneous remission and the Beams call a miracle.
Based on a book by the real Christy Beam, the film observes the compliant Anna from a bit of a distance, focusing mainly on Christy’s reactions to her daughter’s torment. When they struggle to find a pair of pants that will fit over the girl’s grossly swollen stomach, for instance, the camera zeroes in on Anna’s belly and Christy’s face. The intent is to somewhat anesthetize audiences to the child’s pain, and when she does talk about her situation, it’s often in a stoic manner, and with a calmly astute vocabulary, that comes off as oddly clinical, like when she tells her sisters that their mother is upset “because when someone you love gets sick, it causes stress.”
The sheer emotional impact of imagining a child in such peril sometimes overcomes that handicap, flooding scenes with genuine feeling, like the one where Anna drops her usual wide-eyed deadpan and tells her mother she wants to just be done with the pain and die. For the most part, though, situations and people are sketched out too lightly to leave an emotional trace, like the too-deliberately named Angela (Queen Latifah, grossly underutilized), a kindly waitress who befriends Anna and Christy in a Boston diner and then takes the next day off to show them around the city.
That scene is played mostly for laughs at the dilapidated state of Angela’s tin can of a car, and we get only the briefest of glimpses of her after that, making her loving farewell to mother and daughter when they leave Boston for the last time feel unearned. Equally inauthentic is a widely repeated quote, misattributed to Albert Einstein, that Christy solemnly parrots, about how there are two ways to go through life, as if nothing were a miracle or as if everything was. Like the rest of this film, that quote is as hollow as the old tree in the Beams’ backyard. Asserted with confidence, it sounds meaningful at first, but the more you think about it the less convincing it is.