I am absolutely certain that many who read these blogs will like the new movie Letters to God. It is directed by David Nixon, the producer of the two highly successful films Facing the Giants and Fireproof. I am just as certain that others, who appreciate good film as art, and understand the medium in much the way I do, will find this new film a mixed-bag. Let me explain.
First, the story is quite good. It is actually rooted in a true story, with liberty taken to write the script. The film’s co-director, Patrick Doughtie lost his real-life son Tyler to cancer in 2005. He wrote the original screen play based upon this experience. I think that this explains why Letters works in a deeply personal way. The material is moving and the viewer, especially a sincere Christian viewer, will be easily drawn into this story. Further, this film is technically far better than either Facing the Giants or Fireproof. The reasons are clear. The budget for this film was $3 million, which is six-times more than was spent on Fireproof. And the musical quality of the film is considerably better than Nixon’s two previous hits. This film looks bigger and stronger from the start.
Second, there are some great scenes in this film. The actors are generally good. Tanner Maguire (photo right) plays a good Tyler, a challenging role for a young boy. And Jeffrey S. Johnson, the protagonist who is the mailman, reveals a deeply human person in both his strengths and weaknesses. But here is the problem. A moving, even tear-jerking, story does not necessarily make for a great movie. Letters to God is plainly not a great movie. The film is even confusing at times. The way the story unfolds shows that the editing was simply not well done. Way too much film remained and instead of the 110 minutes of run time it seemed like a good 90 minutes would have made the film stronger. At times the story goes in one direction and then you feel led in another with little or no context to support what has happened on screen.
Third, as Carolyn Arends noted in her review in Christianity Today, the theme of the film is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. Like Facing the Giants and Fireproof this film feels far too expressly evangelical. By this I mean it fits into all the preconceived molds that viewers have of evangelical Christianity and its simplistic and predictable answers. Plus, it lacks the kind of action that keeps the viewer in the middle of the story itself. Put very simply, this film feels like something too overtly evangelistic. Arends notes that this makes for “awkward filmmaking, partly because the language will be foreign to non-churched viewers and mostly because films thrive on action and it is very hard to depict quiet, introspective prayer with dramatic impact.” I could not agree more.
But the real saving grace of this film is found in the fact that young Tyler’s Letters are actually his prayers. This fact comes out slowly and subtly, just the way it should for maximum effect. Tyler explains to his brother, whom he urges to write to God, that this is sorta “like texting a friend.” That image works superbly in our modern context. But then there are responses from Tyler, and a few others like his grandmother, that feel way too formulaic. Here the dialogue left me unmoved, if not turned off.
The better moments of the film are the occasions when I wondered if the writer and director wanted me to be deeply moved. When Tyler’s mom, played quite well by Robyn Lively (photo left), has had just enough Bible quoting from her mother she finally loses it. I identified with this scene far more than the ones I think the film makers wanted me to embrace. Tyler’s mom wrestles quite honestly with the question of where was God in her suffering and loss. (Her husband had died, one senses in a tragic accident perhaps, and now her youngest child is slowly dying!) Here real faith is affirmed but not in the patterned evangelical way that I am used to hearing touted way too often.
This kind of problem is captured by Justin Chang in Variety when he says Letters to God is a “clunkily earnest Christian-themed tearjerker.” He adds that the film allows no one to escape the “saintlike glow of its terminally ill protagonist.” Sadly, I have to agree, though this story generally rings true with what people of personal faith can know in deep trial and death.
The U. S. Catholic Conference of Bishops has a film review site and there I found a review of this evangelical film. The writer said, “Though its underlying theology is evangelical, Catholic viewers—and Christian believers of every stripe—will welcome the inspirational and touching drama.” The Catholic review notes that the only noticeable divergence from Catholic teaching comes late in the script when Tyler’s “perky best friend Samantha expresses assurance, rather than the trusting hope, that her acceptance of Jesus into her heart will lead her to eternal life.” This is a common Catholic response to evangelical presentations of “accepting Jesus” and then equating this prayer of faith with the full assurance of living faith for an entire lifetime. Though I do not doubt that a person, including a young person, can have assurance I do understand why these lines troubled this Catholic reviewer. They troubled me too, but not for precisely the same reason. They just sound too “evangelical” for my taste. You are told to pray the sinner’s prayer and it is done, no doubts and no problems.
Like so many such films Letters to God may reach a few nominal Christians with the good news. It will also play well with predictably evangelical audiences who can relate to the sentimentality of the film and the lack of profoundly troubling questions. I wanted Tyler to be a little more normal, more like his mother. And I wanted the gospel to be presented with a little less reliance upon the predictable lines that we all know. The story here is quite good. It reveals solid Christian values and concerns. But Arends is surely right when she concludes that if she could talk to the directors and producers of Letters to God she would : “Ask them, next time, to explai
n a little less and trust th
eir story (and their audience, and the Spirit of God for that matter) a little more.” That says it perfectly.
I want to see human reality, expressed in a good story through a script that moves viewers through the action of the film itself. Very few films with Christian subjects can pull this off. The reasons are complex and would require another post.