Friday, April 09, 2010

Letters To God Review

Jasper Speaks:

I must admit that I went into this film a bit of a skeptic.The storyline just seemed a little too "Hallmark Channel" for me. I got to go to a free screening sponsored by the St. Louis Rams. That might seem odd but apparently one of the players is a strong Christian and they tied it into a Rams charity for sick kids so I suppose that makes sense. I went so I could spend time with my teens who were attending. I had a great time with them.

The movie begins with 8 year old Tyler Doherty, who is suffering from brain cancer and writing letters to God that he leaves for the postman every day. His mother is returning to work as a nurse and life is trying to continue after Tyler has undergone painful radiation treatments.

We are also introduced to the postal workers of the area (which area we never know). There is Walter the over achieving veteran postal worker who doesn't feel right taking time off; Lester the kind and gracious boss; Carl, the over eager middle and manger and Brady, the slacker Iraq ex-service man who is an alcoholic. In a not so shocking twist of fate, Brady gets assigned Walter's walking route which includes Tyler's home.

Tyler eventually is well enough to go back to school. His best friend Sam (Samantha not Samuel), is his protector and confidant. On his first day back a bully is particularly mean to him and Sam proceeds to smash the trouble maker's face in his lunch. The three wind up in the principal's office.

Brady continues to drink. He  doesn't know what to do with the letters to God that Tyler continues to write. He decides to take them to a church where the pastor tells him that he doesn't believe that they came into Brady's possession by chance. The pastor prays with him. Brady keeps the letters, unopened.Through collecting the letters Brady becomes a close friend to the family and his drinking stops.

The movie continues with more exposition explaining how Tyler's cancer affects the entire neighborhood. Tyler becomes the light of many people's world and he points several characters to a relationship with Christ. The movie takes a deeply emotional turn in its falling action. It concludes by letting us know that the story is based on true events and showing us several cancer surviviors that we assume had something to do with the film's production.

I will say that this, in similar fashion to the much superior film To Save A Life released earlier this year, has upped the quality expectations for Christian movies. However, To Save A Life captured real, gritty, life and made little apologies for its realism. Letters to God does play as I feared, much like a TV movie. It is a quality TV movie but nonetheless not what you expect when you attend a theater to see a film. It's scope is small and not quite full enough for a large theater venue.

The acting is far superior to many films of this genre. Jeffery Johnson does a fine job portraying the troubled Brady who is a complex character driven by his past mistakes with his own family and the uneasy pull to become a part of this new one. He is understated in his subtext. His feelings seem real and his character is one of the best written in the film. We see his hurt and regret and can believe that it is true as he battles his past and its demons.

Robyn Lively is not as strong but turns an adequate performance as the struggling mother of a child with cancer. In her most emotional scene, one of the few in the movie that actually rings true to  the doubts and grief of struggling with a terminal illness, Lively is a bit over the top and flirts with overacting. She does reign it in just as she brushes over doing the scene and making it unbelievable. You do trust her performance when it comes to the scenes where she shows love and emotion toward her sick son.

There is a surprise appearance of Ralph Waite (of The Walton's and more recently the Kevin Costner/Whitney Houston film The Bodyguard) as Sam's grandfather. He is a fine actor but the role was written in such a way that it seems a waste that someone with Waite's pedigree would play the part.

You get the sense that Tanner Maguire, who plays Tyler, is trying a bit too hard. Although, the script he has to work with makes believability hard to grasp. Tyler is written in such a way that Mcguire never really has the freedom to delve into the fears and hurts of someone struggling with cancer. He also is a bit too old to be believable as an eight year old. He often has a glossy look that I am not sure is meant to be Tyler's wandering thoughts to Heaven or Maguire's confusion on how to play a child who seems to not struggle much with the fact that he is terminally ill.

Bailee Madison is cute on 110 on a 10 point scale, playing the role of the best friend Sam. The director often uses her to make the crowd say "awww" and forget that cancer is messy. She is a fine young actress and I will admit that her final scenes and voice overs came the closest to manufacturing genuine emotion from me.

Actually the most restrained and believable performance was turned in by Michael Bolten (not the singer) who plays Tyler's older brother, Ben. We can  believe that he cares for his brother and sense his genuine pain at losing first his father (in a "sudden" way that is never disclosed) and now the threat of losing his only brother as well. Bolten never seems to overdo his emotions and the writers stay away from the emotionally manipulative tone that haunts other characters in the scripting of Ben. Bolten also demonstrates a quality musical talent in a scene late in the film.

The Gospel is very plain in this movie. Those who felt that To Save A Life lacked the over the top salvation message should be amply pleased by it's presentation in Letters to God. Although I thought the restraint shown in To Save A Life was necessary for the tone of that film, I am happy that the filmmakers of Letters To God did not shy away from the road to true peace. We see lives changed by the work of Jesus and His name is credited many times.

The movie is worth your time. Perhaps it would be best viewed in your home on a more intimate format than the big screen. Still, I would urge you to suck it up and buy a ticket to see it in the theater. Hollywood needs to know that faith based films can make money. It is always pleasant to go to a movie and be entertained and not have to feel like you have somehow compromised your values by watching it. Letters to God will help get us further down the road to consistent quality Christian film making. If we continue to put quality first, we can only expect for movies with a faith message to get better. I do believe that God can (and will) use this film to further His Kingdom and in the end, I know that is what matters most.

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