By BRUCE DENNILL
Miracles From Heaven / Directed by Patricia Riggen / PG
Apple Of My Eye / Directed by Castille Landon / PG
Woodlawn / Directed by the Erwin Brothers / PG
A film with Christian themes but a Hollywood cast that includes Jennifer Garner and Queen Latifah, Miracles From Heaven could, if poorly handled, be that awful option where someone has tried to tick the mainstream, faith and worthiness boxes and made something that’s gloopily saccharine. Director Patricia Riggen does well to help this project avoid that fate – no small feat when the story’s central thread involves a little girl with a debilitating disease being somehow cured after a freak accident. It’s a set-up that can hardly avoid inviting cynicism, and yet it’s difficult to remain unmoved by the events playing out onscreen. Garner gives loving, protective mother Christy a fierce intensity as she tries to find the best treatment for little Anna (Kylie Rogers – engaging and convincing). The emotions are raw and real, which helps to keep viewers invested. It has a generic title and an unlikely premise, but this is disarmingly good storytelling.
Apple Of My Eye is not a Christian film, but it does strive for the same sort of family friendliness, which it does achieve, but in an awkwardly clunky way. It involves a teenage girl who loses her sight in a riding accident and, unsurprisingly, finds life ever more difficult to manage. She is reluctantly enrolled in a guide dog training programme where she learns predictable if heartwarming lessons about the value of community and not judging people on their more superficial facets. Wooden acting and unsurprising story directions put paid to any real punch, but for younger audiences, this is safe and, possibly, instructive viewing.
Woodlawn sits squarely in the centre of another tired trope – the American football drama in which the underdog triumphs, supposedly unexpectedly. What immediately makes it more interesting than most titles in this area, though, is its being set in Birmingham, Alabama – arguably the most segregated city in the world (South African locales included) in the early 1970s, when the story is set. Additional conflict is introduced when extent of the talent possessed by a young African American running back named Tony Nathan (Caleb Castille) is discovered in the local school, Woodlawn, and the community must decide whether they can put aside their prejudice in the pursuit of sporting success – not much of a moral incentive, but a start, at least. Further spice is added by an outspoken preacher with a flair for chatting to hyped-up young men. The challenges this scenario creates – for Nathan, his team and everyone invested in some way their results – are almost too much to bear, but the teamwork required and, more importantly, sea changes in long-entrenched worldviews mean that meaningful change becomes possible, which is particularly satisfying to watch knowing that the story is based on real events.