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The Independent Critic

Hilary Swank, Alan Ritchson, Nancy Travis, Drew Powell, Emily Mitchell, Skywalker Hughes
Jon Gunn
Kelly Fremon Craig, Meg Tilly
116 Mins.

 Movie Review: Ordinary Angels 
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It was way back in 1989 that my own life was bottoming out. A paraplegic/double amputee with spina bifida, I wasn't supposed to live more than three days but I'd somehow found myself arriving into my late teens and early 20s quite the mess. An early adulthood and very ill-advised marriage ended by my wife's death by suicide and the loss of my newborn daughter the very same day. 

I subsequently lost just about everything else - my lower limbs, my home, my finances, and seemingly my mind. 

I remember sitting in my wheelchair in downtown Indianapolis in October of 1989. Determined to find out if there was any good in the world, I left Indianapolis on a 41-day, 1086 mile journey in my wheelchair alone. I called it The Tenderness Tour. It was my salvation. 

I thought about the early days of the Tenderness Tour often throughout Ordinary Angels, a faith-inspired feel-good weeper of a flick starring two-time Academy Award winner Hilary Swank as Sharon Stevens, an alcoholic largely in denial despite the broken shards of a meaningful life left broken all around her including her estranged relationship with her now adult son, Derek (Dempsey Bryk), whom I'm guessing was more mature than his mother before he hit double-digits. 

This is one of the meatiest roles that Swank has had for a while. Despite being an almost universally respected actress, Swank has always been difficult to peg and her time off to care for a sick parent and raise her twins didn't help matters much. 

Or maybe it did. Swank has always been willing to buck expectations and that's exactly what she does here. 

If you've been watching Amazon's latest incarnation of Reacher, then you're also familiar with Alan Ritchson. While Reacher isn't much more than an action series, Ritchson has infused Jack Reacher with something special and his work here as Ed Schmitt likely explains that irresistible charisma and grounded humanity that companions Ritchson as Reacher. Here, Ritchson is a working class joe whose daughter, Michelle (Emily Mitchell), has become increasingly seriously ill due to a rare liver disorder that threatens her life. Already grieving the death of his young wife, Ed is a good man in a bad situation with no clear way out as he struggles to be a single-parent and deal with hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical debt. 

There's a pretty good chance you already know exactly where Ordinary Angels is going, though this may also be true simply because this is based on a true story that unfolded in Louisville, Kentucky. 

Sharon, whose never met a responsibility she can't avoid, reads about Michelle and gets it in her mind that she's called to help. She essentially shows up on Ed's doorstep offering, at times rather forcefully, to help. 

It starts little and becomes so much more. 

There's no denying that Ordinary Angels has strong faith-based roots with such familiar producing names as Kevin Downes, Andrew Erwin, and Jon Erwin in the mix along with musician Dave Matthews. However, the faith in Ordinary Angels is less preaching out and more reaching out. As a fun note for my fellow Hoosiers, DePauw University grad Drew Powell (born in Noblesville, raised in my own birthplace of Lebanon) is here as Pastor Dave. While faith is present here, Ordinary Angels is definitely a film that will reach a wider audience. 

Swank is marvelous here. She infuses Sharon with a complex humanity recognizing both her addictive personality and her genuinely compassionate nature. Sharon's addiction isn't glossed over nor miraculously fixed and the realistic portrayal of who she really is grounds her character immensely and makes us love her even more. 

So, too, Ritchson is an absolute gem here and shows a side to his acting that should have Hollywood knocking on his door even more. His scenes with Emily Mitchell are tender and sweet and determined and by the end you can't help but wish every child would have a father like Ed. 

Among the key supporting players, Powell does impress in a relatively brief but important appearance as Pastor Dave. Tamala Jones is wonderful as Rose, owner of the salon where Sharon works and mostly shows up late. The wonderful Nancy Travis is also used well as Ed's mother and the voice of reason between the oft-bickering Sharon and Ed. Young actress Skywalker Hughes, and I really want that name, also shines as Michelle's older sister Ashley. 

Okay. Okay. Ordinary Angels is a bit formulaic and could stand to be just a few minutes shorter. Truthfully, it has such a good heart and such a warm spirit that I actually appreciated the extra time with these characters and with this story. 

This story? It was co-written by Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret director Kelly Fremon Craig and Academy Award-nominated actress Meg Tilly (Agnes of God) in her first feature writing gig. This is a wonderful adaptation of a real-life story that transcends its formula and uses its faith and warm fuzzies quite well. The film is inspirational, but this is a seriously hard-earned inspiration. 

Director Jon Gunn has worked largely in the faith-based and faith-inspired arenas directing such films as The Case for Christ and The Unbreakable Boy while writing such familiar titles as last year's hit Jesus Revolution along with American Underdog and I Still Believe. Lensing by Maya Bankovic manages to amplify the film's inspirational tone without ever losing a sense of naturalism. Pancho Burgos-Goizueta's original score is an absolute winner. 

There will be naysayers for Ordinary Angels, but I'm here to say those naysayers suck as human beings. Ignore them. In a world that seems to be drowning in cynicism these days, a hopeful and heartfelt film like Ordinary Angels is exactly what we need.

Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic