A young boy with a tragic diagnosis. A mailman who has lost his way. A powerful message of Christ’s love and forgiveness. Sounds like the perfect Christian movie, right? Sadly, no. As much as I wanted to like this film, I just couldn’t. Now before you call me the Tin Man (no heart) and say that I kick puppies for fun, just hear me out.
Letters to God is about an 8-year-old boy named Tyler (played by Tanner Maguire) who writes letters to God during his battle with cancer. These letters impact the boy’s family, which includes his mother (Robin Lively), grandmother (Maree Cheatham), and older brother (Michael Bolten), and the life of a spiritually broken mailman (played very well by Jeffrey S. Johnson). Other cast members include Ralph Waite, L. Derek Leonidoff, and Bailee Madison.
I have two big problems with the movie. My first problem is that there really is no story. A boy with cancer is not a story. That’s a character. A boy with cancer writing letters to God is not a story. That’s a gimmick. Some will disagree with me because this film is based on a true story, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you have enough elements for an engaging movie.
A story requires more than a random sequence of events. It takes well-developed characters, a protagonist who wants to achieve something, a journey filled with obstacles, and character growth. In all honesty, this film lacks all of these elements. As I watched the film I never knew what the boy wanted. Did he want to survive? Did he want to come to terms with his cancer? Did he want to be a witness to others? What was his ultimate goal? The answers to these questions were unclear. He seems to merely exist with cancer, while other characters revolve around him and are impacted by his existence.
My second problem is that the movie relies on its message as the driving force. This film’s message is top-notch, but, again, a message does not equal a story. A message is a sermon or a billboard. Christian filmmakers need to treat movies as an art form and not simply a marketing tool for Christ. They need to create a compelling story and trust that story to reveal the message of Christ without beating audiences over the head with it.
Overall, I think the film would’ve been more effective if it focused mainly on the boy’s friendship with the mailman instead of sporadically trying to include everyone else. The characters should’ve been fleshed out more, as well. They seemed to represent issues faced by those affected by cancer rather than being really human. I wanted to like them. I liked the idea of them, but they never delivered on their potential. There are plenty of cringe-worthy moments where the performances and the sharing of the Gospel seemed forced and awkward. Can you imagine how much stronger these kinds of films would be if Meryl Streep or Morgan Freeman were in them?
Directed and produced by David Nixon (producer of Fireproof and Facing the Giants), Letters to God does for those coping with cancer what Fireproof supposedly did for struggling marriages. There’s even a large line of movie merchandise that includes everything from Bibles to bracelets and even a cancer counseling program for churches. I think general Christian audiences, especially families with young children, will find enough within Letters to God to enjoy its Christian message and Disney Channel feel, but overall it will remain ineffective for secular audiences and film critics.
Written and co-directed by Patrick Doughtie, who is the father of the boy who inspired the film, the movie has a simple tagline: “Hope is contagious.” Maybe one day excellence will be just as contagious within the Christian filmmaking industry. All criticism aside, I do applaud these filmmakers in striving to create quality Christian films. They’re not quite there yet, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t keep trying.
Released Date: April 9, 2010
MPAA Rating: PG for thematic material
Running time: 1 hr. 54 min.
Production Company: Possibility Pictures