Christian filmmaking takes a turn for the worst with this treacle-y tale “inspired” by the true story of an 8 year old boy fighting brain cancer who carries on a pen-and-paper correspondence with God. An alcoholic, substitute postman retrieves them and finds his own life transformed in the process. Basically a cinematic infomercial for the power of prayer, Letters to God is far too simplistic and pandering to find success outside of the targeted church-going family moviegoers it’s hoping to reach. Decent box office returns can be expected from this sector but the collection plate may be empty otherwise.
Tyler Doherty (Tanner Maguire) is a spirited young man plagued with brain cancer and forced to endure endless chemotherapy sessions. His faith and ability to express his thoughts in letters addressed simply to “God” are what gets him through the experience and also eventually have a profound effect on those around him, including a part-time divorced postal worker, Brady McDaniels (Jeffrey S. Johnson), who hits the local bar when he’s not delivering mail and finds his life a mess as a result of his alcoholism. On top on his other problems he learns he is now going to lose any rights to see his son after a near-fatal traffic accident and DUI lands him in hot water. His encounters with Tyler and his letters give him a respite from the Jack Daniels and seem to have a life-changing effect on him as he grows closer to Tyler’s family and especially his widowed mom (Robyn Lively), who has a series of problems of her own including Tyler’s illness and the neglect of her older teenaged son, Ben (Michael Christopher Bolten). After a number of incidents provide the film’s desperately needed sense of drama, Brady finds a way to energize the entire community by turning Tyler’s letters into positive action.
First time co-writer and co-director Patrick Doughtie used his own personal experience with the death of his 10 year old son (to whom the film is dedicated) to weave this tale of hope and faith in God and religion during the most trying times of life. While the effort is certainly laudable and understandably cathartic it’s also (sadly) a real slog for the audience. The film’s whitebread suburban setting is so hopelessly old-fashioned and homogenized you’d swear Beaver Cleaver must live right down the street. Unlike other more sophisticated recent Christian movie successes like Fireproof with Kirk Cameron there is no complexity to these characters at all and the relentless pitch for prayer as the answer to all life’s problems is laid on like molasses.
Under the circumstances performances are okay, with Greg Kinnear look-a-like Johnson and Lively getting the lions share of the big emotional breakdown scenes. Maguire does fine along with ever-smiling best friend Samantha, played by the delightful Bailee Madison (Brothers). Veterans Marie Cheeatham as Grandma and Ralph Waite don’t have much to do but offer bumper sticker platitudes or sit around on the front porch playing checkers. It’s that kind of movie. And you thought they didn’t make ‘em like this anymore.
Distributor: Vivendi Entertainment
Cast: Tanner Maguire, Jeffrey S. Johnson, Robyn Lively, Marie Cheatham, Ralph Waite, Bailee Madison and Michael Christopher Bolten
Directors: David Nixon and Patrick Doughtie
Screenwriters: Patrick Doughtie, Art D’Allesandro, Sandra Thrift and Cullen Douglas
Producers: David Nixon and Kim Dawson
Rating: PG for thematic material
Running time: 110 min.
Release date: April 9, 2010