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Review

A wholesome moral doesn’t equal a good film

Michael Brun

April 15, 2010

It’s hard to hate a film like “Letters to God.” When you adapt a true story about a boy with brain cancer whose heavenly correspondences change the life of an alcoholic mailman, you pretty much get a free pass from criticism. Yeah it’s schmaltzy, and the production value is none too high, but when a movie is this wholesome and has such a positive message, does it even matter?

“Letters to God” is definitely a low-budget film. It has the appearance of a made-for-TV movie — like something you’d expect to see on ABC Family instead of the big screen. There are even brief pauses during scene transitions that would be perfect for commercial breaks.

Its shoestring budget is also apparent in the film’s cast. The actors are largely unknowns, with many coming over from supporting roles on TV shows. Stars Robyn Lively (“Twin Peaks,” “30 Rock”) and Jeffrey Johnson (“CSI,” “Burn Notice”) are two such examples. Their performances are acceptable for this kind of production, but they’re often marred by flat characters and stale dialog.

The most challenging role is played by 12-year-old Tanner Maguire (“How I Met Your Mother”). His enthusiastic performance as a young boy fighting cancer, while occasionally overdone, lends the film some much needed heart. “Letters to God” covers some pretty serious topics, and I think that it would be unbearably heavy if not for Maguire’s bright-eyed innocence.

If you don’t get choked up by the end of this film, then odds are good that you’re not human. The plot is a textbook tearjerker, designed to play off your emotions and illicit a response. It’s sappy and overly sentimental, but it’s hard to hate it when its goal is to promote faith and foster hope for cancer survival.

So you can’t hate it, but that doesn’t mean you have to like it; and, frankly, I didn’t. It’s a wonderful story, but it’s just not told very well. The film’s pacing feels off. Its running time is nearly two hours, but it’s not until the last 20 minutes that things really start to click. The final act packs an emotional punch, but it’s almost not worth the effort getting there.

Director/producer David Nixon seems more interested in giving Bible lessons than telling a tightly-crafted story. Considering his past work includes two films produced for the Sherwood Baptist Church, it’s not surprising that “Letters to God” has such a strong Christian slant. It’s all good stuff – very uplifting and certainly powerful for anyone who has lost a loved one to disease – but such a strong focus on a single set of beliefs prevents the story from being universal to the human experience. The bottom line is that “Letters to God” is a sub-par film. The story is obviously very personal for the cast and crew, but unfortunately the finished product comes off as tedious and clumsy. Go see it as a springboard for discussion or as an affirmation of your beliefs. Just don’t go for the entertainment.

Michael Brun is an alumnus of UW-River Falls.