Judge Erich Asperschlager wonders if letters to God require Forever-and-Ever stamps.
"God put these letters in your hands for a reason."
It's hard to make a child cancer movie that isn't saccharine. Set that movie in the inspirational Christian family film genre and you might as well include a free shot of insulin with every ticket. Directed by David Nixon, Letters to God fits both categories. It features a single mother trying to get by, an older brother no one understands, a guy with a drinking problem who learns a valuable lesson, and a backwards hat-wearing tomboy best friend. By all rights, Letters to God should be a marathon of eye rolling for anyone but the most forgiving churchgoer.
But it's not.
Facts of the Case
Tyler Doherty's (Tanner Maguire, How I Met Your Mother) family has been through a lot in the last few years. First came his father's sudden death, followed by Tyler's diagnosis with a rare form of brain cancer. His mother, Maddy (Robyn Lively, The Mentalist) is doing her best to balance working, being a single mom, and taking care of Tyler and his brother, Ben (Michael Bolten, Retro News). Even with her mother's (Maree Cheatham, Days of Our Lives) help, it's a struggle. On the other side of town, Brady McDaniels (Jeffrey Johnson, Burn Notice) is having troubles of his own. Ever since his wife left him and took their son, his drinking problem has spiraled out of control and is affecting his work at the post office. Brady's life changes, however, when he takes over for the mailman who delivers to the Doherty's neighborhood. Along with running away from dogs, and learning the quirks of the people on his route—including a curmudgeon (Ralph Waite, The Waltons) whose granddaughter (Bailee Madison, Bridge to Terabithia) is Tyler's best friend—he is confronted with an unexpected dilemma: what to do with the letters Tyler writes to God and leaves in the mailbox for pick-up?
Letters to God is filled with clichés and clunky dialogue delivered by too-cute child actors, but it more than makes up for those shortcomings thanks to a solid emotional core and a willingness to explore the difficulty of dealing with a life-threatening disease, and the toll it can take on a family and their faith.
Letters to God is at its worst when its trying to establish the characters and backstory. The first act is a steady stream of movie clichés and pointed exposition. To show us how hard it is for Tyler's mom to deal with a sick kid as a single mom, we get the old burnt-dinner-pulled-out-of-the-oven gag. We meet Tyler's best friend Sam when she climbs through his bedroom window. Brady starts off drunk in a bar, harassing the bartender before stumbling back to his messy apartment to find out the only food in his fridge is an old pizza box and some discarded Chinese food. Then, on his first day as postal carrier, he gets chased by a dog and gets tangled in a lawn sprinkler. If that stuff sounds familiar, that's because you've seen it in countless other movies.
Letters to God starts to take off, though, once the introductions are out of the way. Once the movie shifts focus to the day-to-day life of Tyler's family and friends, characters stop being caricatures and start showing genuine emotion. This movie wears its Christianity proudly, but not so proudly that it refuses to show people struggling with faith in times of crisis. The ultimate message is one of hope, of relying on God's strength and the power of prayer and love to change lives, but the reason that message has weight is because we get to see the journey that leads the characters to that understanding.
Although screenwriters Patrick Doughtie, Art D'Alessandro, and Sandra Thrift deserve credit for the movie's emotional impact, most of the kudos belong to the cast, especially Robyn Lively and Jeffrey Johnson. They have the most weight to bear, and make stock characters believable. The child actors are more of a mixed bag. Tanner Maguire does a solid job with a difficult role, though his unbridled optimism could be reined in a little.
Many religious family films look like the small budgets they were made on. Letters to God, on the other hand, is slick-looking and professional. It looks at least as good as most of what comes out of Hollywood, with dynamic lighting, complicated crane shots, and careful composition. The anamorphic widescreen transfer is terrific, as is the 5.1 sound track. It's not the most aggressive of surround mixes, but it has some nice spatial effects and provides a rich environment for the score and inspirational song montages.
Letters to God comes with two main bonus features, a 13-minute making-of featurette, and an audio commentary recorded by director David Nixon and writer/co-director Patrick Doughtie, who wrote the movie as a tribute to his actual son Tyler, who died from cancer. The track is filled with nitty-gritty tech stuff and praise for the cast, but it also includes background information about Doughtie's son and the real-life details that made it into the movie.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
For all that it gets right, Letters to God is still wrapped in a screenplay that feels like a checklist of movie clichés. I'm not sure how they crammed in a woman going into labor at a party, a bully getting his comeuppance, a big soccer game, and a live song performance, but they did.
Despite hitting a few off acting and story notes, Letters to God is a moving portrayal of the power of faith in the face of a terrible situation. It comes from a place of honesty, and is a loving tribute not only to the actual little boy the story is based on, but to everyone who has been touched by cancer—some of whom are profiled in the touching finale. With sound theology and a sincere spirit, Letters to God is for a wider audience than the "Christian family film" label it likely will get.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Vivendi Visual Entertainment
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