STARRING Ralph Waite, Bailee Madison, Maree Cheatham, Robyn Lively, Jeffrey S.S. Johnson, Tanner Maguire DIRECTED BY David Nixon, Patrick Doughtie SCREENPLAY Cullen Douglas, Patrick Doughtie, Sandra Thrift, Art D'Alessandro MPAA RATING Rated PG RUNNING TIME 110 Mins. DISTRIBUTED BY Vivendi Entertainment DVD EXTRAS Audio commentary by director David Nixon and writer/co-director Patrick Doughtie
"Letters to God" Review
It's a dilemma.
It's a dilemma that few Christian filmmakers have yet solved, and it's a dilemma that continues to perplex even film critics of faith.
How does a filmmaker, or even can they, create a film that both glorifies God and is "market friendly" enough to be seen by a wider audience?
How does a film critic review a film that is simultaneously trying to do these very things, glorify God while attracting a wider audience, without appearing to be cynical, jaded or somehow "lacking" in faith?
Are these things even possible? Should they be possible?
Should Christian cinema necessarily be "market friendly?"
Should profits matter?
After all, there's no documentation I've ever read anywhere about Jesus charging $20 a head to hear his words of wisdom. Is the goal of Christian cinema to profit or to inspire? To fill the multiplexes or to potentially evangelize?
Or is it all simply about entertainment?
How you view the answers to all of these questions may very well impact your ability to appreciate Letters to God, the latest faith-centered film to find its way to your neighborhood theatre and, per chance, into the hearts of its target faith-based audience.
In the film, Tyler (Tanner Maguire) is a young boy of tremendous courage and faith whose battle with cancer has led him to write prayers, as in letters, to God. These letters are picked up by Brady (Jeffrey S.S. Johnson), a rather troubled and cynical postman whose initial resistance to the letters quickly gives way to a sense of calling and responsibility and, in turn, an upward turn in his own life not even shared by Tyler's own mother (Robyn Lively).
Ever so slightly similar in theme to Greg Kinnear's schmaltzy yet more mainstream 1996 film Dear God, Letters to God is likely to be considered a heartwarming, tearjerker of a flick to the same crowd who embraced the writings of Mattie Stepanek and for whom the entire idea of a young boy writing letters to God elicits an automatic "Awwwww."
There are a lot of you, inside churches and outside of churches.
The remainder of you, however, are likely to consider Letters to God a blandly written, painfully sterile drama along the lines of a Fire Proof, a film that tackles major life traumas with a wink and a prayer.
The truth, at least to this writer, may very well exist squarely in the middle.
Letters to God is at least modestly successfully in accomplishing its vision of creating a film that features a universal story told through the eyes of faith. Struggles with cancer, disappointment with life and becoming jaded are not exclusive to moviegoers of faith, and these themes should undoubtedly resonate with a wider audience. What many may interpret as blandness may very well be the effort of co-directors David Nixon and Patrick Doughtie to create a film centered in faith that avoids the off-putting sledgehammer approach so commonly found in faith-based artistic works.
Letters to God never quite nails the balance between message and marketing, instead too often feeling like both are being compromised for the sake of the other. The end result is neither a good film nor a particularly bad film, but rather a film that only modestly reaches its artistic vision despite having the potential to be yet another breakthrough film for Christian filmmakers.
One area where Letters to God sets a higher bar for faith-based film is in the area of casting, with a particularly strong performance by Robyn Lively, whose turn as a mother experiencing a crisis of faith is multi-layered and emotionally resonant even when the words she's speaking don't particularly resonate themselves. Jeffrey S.S. Johnson also adds some nice emotional depth as the troubled postman, and in a rather delightful surprise Ralph Waite, "Pa" on the old television series The Waltons, has a very nice cameo appearance.
Bob Scott's camera work is simple yet effective, while Mark Garner's production design does a nice job of balance the gravity of the situation with the underlying hopefulness dwelling within the story. Other production credits are generally solid for this modestly budgeted flick that should, with reasonable support from the faith community, have no problem recouping the film's production budget.
Faith-based cinema has come a long way from the days of laughably bad performances and equally pathetic production values in the name of "glorifying God" above profit. Filmmakers of faith are learning that one can glorify while creating a work of artistic integrity and value and, in turn, audiences will show up to see it. While Letters to God never quite becomes the film it is meant to be, it is a film that will deeply resonate with anyone who has ever experienced a life and faith-altering event, a major life challenge or a crisis of faith.