Film Review: Finding hope, inspiration in 'Letters to God'

Tyler (Tanner Maguire, with Bailee Madison, left) composes and mails  daily prayers in 'Letters to God.'

Dale Stroud/Possibility Pictures

Tyler (Tanner Maguire, with Bailee Madison, left) composes and mails daily prayers in "Letters to God."

A sometimes moving, sometimes awkward blend of sentimental family drama, childhood cancer awareness and Christian proselytizing, "Letters to God" is the latest feature film targeted at the niche moviegoing audience that turned 2008's "Fireproof" with Kirk Cameron into a surprise $33 million box-office hit. ("The Grace Card," shot in Memphis last year with financing from Cordova's Calvary Church of the Nazarene, hopes to be one of the next.)

A heartfelt tale of inspiration, hope and redemption, "Letters to God" is the story of what happens when one boy's walk of faith crosses paths ...

Rating: PG for thematic material

Length: 110 minutes

Released: April 9, 2010 Nationwide

Cast: Robyn Lively, Jeffrey Johnson, Maree Cheatham, Tanner Maguire, Michael Christopher Bolten

Director: David Nixon

Writer: Patrick Doughtie, Art D'Alessandro, Sandra Thrift, Cullen Douglas

More info and showtimes »

"We believe that Christian movies are the greatest evangelical tool of our time," director David Nixon told an invited audience at a Feb. 22 preview screening of "Letters to God." He told those who showed up for the movie that they were there by "divine appointment," and urged them to spread the message of the film at their churches.

"Letters to God" was co-directed and co-scripted by Nashville's Patrick Doughtie, who was inspired by his young son's fatal struggle with cancer. The movie casts Tanner Maguire as Tyler Doherty (instead of Doughtie), an 8-year-old boy whose brave cancer battle is a source of inspiration but also tension in his loving, close-knit family. "I just wish everyone would stop quoting the Bible to me," says Tyler's attractive widowed mom (Robyn Lively), in one of the movie's more realistic moments. "It's not curing my son."

Embracing the Almighty as a sort of heavenly pen pal, Tyler begins composing and mailing daily prayer letters that are addressed, simply, to God. ("It's not lame, it's like texting your best friend," he reassures naysayers.) In a typical missive, the plucky youngster asks: "Why am I sick, God? The medicine stinks, but I don't have to take my spelling test this week, so that's good." He also writes: "I really wish my mom would laugh. I miss that the most... Dear God, please find someone for my mom."

Cue the mailman: Tyler's letters are intercepted by a substitute postal carrier in need of redemption, a divorced alcoholic Iraq War vet (Jeffrey S.S. Johnson) who might see the light sooner if only he could hear the lyrics of the country song that accompanies him on the soundtrack when he makes his rounds of the local bars: "There's no message in this bottle..." (According to the press kit, the movie also showcases "the Hit Single 'Dear Mr. God' by the Warren Brothers.") The postman finds inspiration in Tyler's letters, and soon the entire town is rallying around the boy.

"Letters to God" is the debut release from Possibility Pictures, a company founded by Nixon, who was a producer of "Fireproof" and "Facing the Giants." The movie is most successful when it deals with the day-to-day challenges facing Tyler, as when the boy -- wearing a scarf to cover the hair loss caused by his chemotherapy -- is shunned by classmates scared of coming into contact with the "cancer kid." ("He has cancer, not cooties!" a friend asserts.) These moments could be instructive to kids -- and adults -- of all faiths. Some viewers, however, may resist the scene in which Tyler faces down a school bully with the instruction: "Pray and open your heart to Jesus."

Supporting characters include Tyler's "good and grumpy" grandpa (played by the former Pa Walton, Ralph Waite), an old stage actor and makeup enthusiast who seems to get a kick out of applying Oscar Homolka eyebrows to the boy; and Sam, a tomboyish classmate. Sam is played by one Bailee Madison, an extremely, um, expressive youngster who acts her little heart out -- pulling faces, crying with a stiff upper lip, and otherwise suggesting that the search for Dolly in a live-action version of "The Family Circus" is at an end.

-- John Beifuss, 529-2394

© 2010 Go Memphis. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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