By: Addison Wylie
I really am not a big fan of these over-dramatic, sappy films that push religious views in the face of an audience. Not a fan at all. I don’t have anything against people believing what they want to believe nor the fact that filmmakers want to acknowledge different religions but the moment filmmakers use this medium to try and convert me into a religion that they’re deeply passionate for, I’m taken right out of the movie. That said, not only do these films focus on trying to pursued people towards religions, in this case Christianity, but the films are usually lazy. It’s as if the filmmakers’ soul purpose for making movies is to get a message across and nothing else. It’s ok for there to be a strong, passionate, sometimes personal message behind a movie but the other elements can’t be written off. Here, we have Letters to God; a movie that appeared to have the same intentions as other Christian-based films. There’s a fair share of weak components presented in the movie but the film does have it’s heart in the right place at times and it ends up being quite touching.
While living in a small, quaint town, Tyler Doherty, played by Tanner Maguire, has been diagnosed with cancer and has been living like this for a while. Exhausted from medication and several radiation treatments, Tyler has the help from his Mom, Maddy, played by Robyn Lively, his brother, and his Grandma in order for his living arrangements to stay stable. It also helps that Tyler has been writing letters to God in order to vent and prey and make him feel better on the whole. On the other side of the spectrum in the neighbourhood, we have Brady, played by Jeffery Johnson. Brady is an alcoholic mailman who is trying to shut out his hurtful past and drink his worries away. When Brady is called into work in order to deliver mail on a new route, Brady encounters these letters to God. Left in the Doherty’s mailbox for the mailman to take, Brady has absolutely no idea what to do with these personal letters. When advised by the local pastor Andy, played by L. Derek Leonidoff, that Brady should hold on to the letters because God placed these messages in his hands, Brady soon finds out that these letters are more than prayers and passages from a sick, little boy but it is also the path to help Brady redefine himself and have new, warm people enter his life.
Even though this film is based a true story, this movie cranks the sappiness level very high. However, when the film has it’s heart in the right place, that sappiness level actually ends up complementing the film. The script, written by co-director patrick Doughtie and screenwriters Art D’Alessandro, Sandra Thrift, and Cullen Douglas, is injected with many moments of melodrama and the screenwriters don’t really have a line in the sand as to where the “over-the-top” territory is. The screenwriters seem to be in this state of mind where they think that if they happen to go over that line and go over-the-top, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because that core Christian demographic will stick with the film no matter what because of the constant references to that religion. I can’t speak on behalf of Christian audiences on whether that’s true but I can sure speak for myself and this method of screenwriting doesn’t work. You have to have that line drawn in order for the film to stay in its reality. Once you exit that reality, I have a hard time believing in the story or the characters. There are those moments of needless religion propaganda in here as well. As mentioned before, the film inserts scenes of characters insisting people should prey in order to feel better including a scene with Tyler and his friends where Tyler is trying to pursued a bully and his friend, Sam, into believing in God. There’s also a scene where an older man tells Tyler that he has been picked by God. The old man explains that by being diagnosed with cancer, God has selected Tyler to help others and help them be recognized in the eyes of God. This is one of the many moments where the screenwriters want to mean well but it ends off becoming borderline offensive. And in those scenes where Tyler is trying to convince people to believe in God, the overall mood comes off as creepy and uncomfortable. On that note, there’s also no subtlety located in the script at all. When you have a comic relief old man character named Cornelius Perryfield, you kind of lose me. Not only that, but some character portrayals are very overblown. For instance, before Brady takes over the mail route, a character named Walter Finley is the king of this mail route. This role played by Christopher Schmidt is played so improperly and exaggerated that it’s almost as if that character has a mental illness. He’s constantly reminding his Boss of what the new mailman should do and his mannerisms are excessive and unrealistic. Although it’s a minor role, it’s a portion that immediately pulls the viewer out of the movie. This role is also a character that is supposed to be comic relief as well which relates to another point in regards to subtlety. The emotions, most of the time, are beaten over the heads of the audience constantly. If the filmmakers want you to laugh, they will turn on that “wacky” music and have characters do prat falls or say inane things that no one would ever say. Again, this would take anyone out of the movie. Same goes for whether the filmmakers want the audience to feel sad.
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The blame for this feeling of being struck over the head by the emotion hammer is not only aimed towards the screenwriters but it’s also aimed towards the lethargic direction provided by David Nixon and the already mentioned Patrick Doughtie. Nixon has been walking a thin line with me lately. He was one of the producers on another Christian-based film I loathe titled Fireproof; the film starring Kirk Cameron where Cameron tries to overcome his marriage trials and tribulations by reading a book called The Love Dare. Fireproof was filled to the brim with nonsensical bologna and Nixon tries to play the same cards here as well. Whenever there are scenes that take place in a Church or in a Christian environment, there is always one cross in the scene that is lit very well. It’s almost as if the audience’s eyes are supposed to be drawn towards the lit cross instead of focusing on the action in the scene itself. Nixon feels no desire to focus on making his film look good either. Nixon and his cinematographer, Bob Scott, capture shots successfully but everything looks very bland and ordinary. The whole film, in fact, looks like it could double for a Diabetes infomercial. Nixon also uses a headache inducing, exaggerated score provided by Colin O’Malley and an unintentionally funny Christian soundtrack. I say unintentionally funny because in one scene where Brady is upset and tearing his apartment apart, the lyrics are actually narrating the scene. I almost expected a credit at the end of the film that said “original songs written by Trey Parker”; it’s that blatant. This director’s intentions are not in the right place for a large chunk of the film’s duration. However, I believe this film is a lot more stronger than Nixon’s previous outing because there is help from other producers on the production. On Fireproof, Nixon had virtually the same people that were helping him with that production that helped him on his previous production Facing The Giants; another film aimed towards a Christian audience. Here, there a lot more outside names which, leads me to believe, helped tone down the earth-shattering overtness of Nixon and Doughtie’s direction. Unlike Fireproof, Letters to God features some solid scenes of realistic interactions which is also helped out by the chemistry of the actors. I really enjoyed the scenes between Tyler and his friend Sam, played by the adorable Bailee Madison. These scenes feature a lot of character and charm that ended up warming my heart. The same can be said about scenes between Maddy and her Mom and exchanges between Brady and Maddy. It’s scenes like these that lead me to believe that the actors worked well not only on camera but off camera too. These scenes are the heart of the film and they end up raising the film greatly. However, thanks to the scriptwriters, once God is mentioned, the scenes become very stagy and hammy.
Letters to God isn’t quite as bad as some might expect it to be but it certainly is far from being great. Ultimately, the movie is a missed opportunity which really is too bad. This could’ve been a very strong film for families who have a relative who has cancer or has gone through the surgery procedures and this film could’ve been a tool to connect with a younger audience about this material. There are signs in this film that reminded me of those older family films like My Dog Skip or even October Sky; films that were rated PG but weren’t afraid of tackling mature subject matter. Those films are usually far and few between or get extremely limited theatre engagements where audiences really have to hunt the movie down in order to see it. If it weren’t for the constant throw-backs to Christianity and if the script and direction was toned down more, this film, no doubly, would’ve been a return to form for those family dramas. Let’s hope next time Dixon and these writers decide to get behind a movie again, they won’t mix their work and their religious beliefs again.