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ordinary-angels.jpg

The Christians Making 'Ordinary Angels' Accidentally Made a Jewish Film

By Dustin Rowles | Film | February 26, 2024 |

By Dustin Rowles | Film | February 26, 2024 |


ordinary-angels.jpg

I spent a lot of time in Bible belt churches growing up, and I’ve spent a lot of time over the past many years in synagogues. Everyone’s experience is different, but if I had to sum up the differences in broad terms guaranteed to offend someone, I’d say that church was all about worshipping God, having one’s sins absolved, and passing around the collection plate. It was about what you could do for God and what God could do for you — it felt transactional, and the First Baptist Church was the banker.

The experiences in a (reform) synagogue have been wildly different for me. God is around, obviously, but he’s not there to be idly worshipped, to absolve us from our sins, or even to judge us. He’s not there to scare us with hell or reward us with heaven. The whole point for most liberal American Jews is tikkun olam — repairing the world. Judaism is about making the world a better place while we are here, not to appease an almighty God but because it’s the right thing to do. Also, instead of a collection plate, they bill you directly. I prefer it. It’s less passive-aggressive.

It’s an outstanding religion, and I dig it. Technically, you don’t even have to believe in God to practice it. All you have to do is help your neighbor shovel her driveway or plant a tree, and boom! You’re practicing Judaism. You’ve earned yourself a loaf of challah and a bottle of wine on Friday night. Shabbat Shalom!

I mention all of this because I recently watched the “inspirational” faith-based film Ordinary Angels, which comes from Kingdom Story Company, the Christian production arm of Lionsgate, which has produced The Jesus Music, that Jesus-y Kurt Warner film, and some other Christian flicks.

Ordinary Angels, however, is getting surprisingly solid reviews, even from the coastal elites (and an A+ CinemaScore, to boot), and I’ll tell you why: It’s a pretty good movie. The script was written by the Oscar-nominated Meg Tilly (sister of Jennifer) and Kelly Fremon Craig, who wrote and directed the outstanding films Edge of Seventeen and last year’s Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret. It also stars Oscar winner Hilary Swank, Nancy goddamn Travis of So I Married an Axe Murderer fame, and one of the producers is frickin’ Dave Matthews. The “Ants Marching” guy!

But it’s really Alan Ritchson who steals the show. Jack Reacher himself! Based on a true story, Ritchson plays Ed Schmitt, a construction worker who has had some real shit luck. It’s 1993, and the man has not only lost his wife but he has a daughter with a congenital liver disease and needs a liver transplant to survive (in real life, both of that poor man’s daughters needed liver transplants). Enter Sharon Stevens, played by Swank in her blue-collar brassiest.

Stevens is a hairdresser and an alcoholic. She has some addiction issues, and instead of handling her shit, Sharon decides to channel all that addiction energy into helping out the Schmitt family, who are saddled with $400,000 in medical bills and can’t afford all the medications necessary to care for his children. Stevens begins with a fundraiser that brings in $3,000 and then intrudes into the lives of this family whether they like it or not. Prideful Ed is not a big fan and can’t stop wondering why this woman insists on helping his family out and when will she leave.

The whole thing culminates in a big climactic moment where the whole town comes together during a historic Kentucky blizzard to ensure that the daughter can get to a hospital hours away, which requires a helicopter, a private jet, and a lot of shovels.

It’s heartwarming as hell, and director Jon Gunn manages an unusual level of restraint in his direction for this kind of movie. The film doesn’t beat the audience over the head with swelling music or manipulative weepy scenes. Gunn lets the story speak for itself, and the story is plenty powerful enough on its own. He does, however, rely on the tried and true: A stoic man of few words crying. It gets me every time.

But I’ve seen a number of these faith-based films — I remember Jennifer Garner’s Miracles from Heaven, specifically — and “miracles” often play central to them. I’m not saying that miracles and answered prayers are the exclusive domain of Christianity, but Christians sure do like to cite the unexplainable to prove the existence of God. Christianity is all about the afterlife, about getting saved, and making it to those gates and eternal life beyond. Christians also think the original creation was perfect and that God has a plan.

Jews, on the other hand, are like, “God gave us the Earth. The Earth is good, but humankind can make it better.” That’s on us. That’s what each generation is tasked with doing: Making the world better for the next generation (sorry, Gen Z, we’re doing a shit job of that right now). Sharon Stevens is making the world better in Ordinary Angels. There are no miracles beyond the miracle of science. Stevens and the Louisville community decide that they want to make the world a better place by saving this little girl’s life, not by asking God to perform a miracle but by going out and doing it themselves. Stevens is no angel, ordinary or otherwise. She’s just someone who wants to make the world a better place, and that is the most Jewish thing you can do.

It also makes for a hell of a crowd-pleasing film.