Ordinary Angels

Ordinary Angels
Ordinary Angels
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With a true story centered on everyday people pulling off extraordinary feats, “Ordinary Angels” can’t help but embrace the sentimentality at its core. It’s baked into its DNA, and is the reason why this compelling, heartstring-pulling drama made it to the big screen 30 years after taking place — in a time when we too are searching for light in a bleak world. Yet what lifts the picture beyond average inspirational fluff is the way director Jon Gunn and company control the slow release of its sweetness so as not to overpower. This technique, though forgivably manipulative, works to grand effect and, by the end, even cynics will be won over by the human kindness on display.

Sharon (Hilary Swank) is a mess. She lives alone in a sad-sack apartment with barely anything in her fridge but stale leftovers and freezer-burned dreams of a better life. She also leaves sloppy voicemails for her estranged son Derek (Dempsey Bryk) night after night. With her thick Southern accent and even thicker head of highlights, this hairdresser covers up her sorrows with booze, wisecracks and a tough exterior. Her colleague and best friend Rose (Tamala Jones), however, is fed up and, in an act of desperation after Sharon’s most recent bender, drops her off at Alcoholics Anonymous. And that’s where things begin to click.

It finally dawns on Sharon that she needs to find a greater purpose to her life. That message crystalizes when, at the checkout counter to buy beer, she spots a newspaper headline about 5-year-old Michelle Schmitt (Emily Mitchell), who’s been hit by dire circumstances twice over: the death of her saintly mother, Theresa (Amy Acker), and a desperate need for a liver transplant. Sharon starts with small selfless acts, much to the baffled chagrin of Michelle’s grieving widower father, Ed (Alan Ritchson), cutting hair for a charity fundraiser, organizing the family’s mounting bills and babysitting Michelle and her slightly older sister, Ashley (Skywalker Hughes). But as Sharon steadfastly shoulders the Schmitt’s stresses, her own demons crawl out of the shadows once again.

Swank typically turns in solid work when given a role with dimension and complexity, which proves true again in this case. The two-time Oscar winner calibrates Sharon’s spirited perseverance, as well as her susceptibility to angst and sorrow. In Swank’s capable hands, the character’s predictable arc is made formidable, conjuring sympathy and strength in spades. Plus, she brings a naturalism to the scenes shared with Mitchell and Hughes, rising stars in their own right, who efficiently deliver precociousness with the right amount of potency.

Ritchson is perfectly cast as a laconic, weary father. As an actor who gives a stronger performance in the absence of dialogue, he connotes a finely tuned resolve and open-hearted honesty within the quieter moments. His hulking, broody stature also works brilliantly in his favor as it illuminates the underlying poignancy of this strong guy’s ultimate weakness: his inability to protect his wife and tiny daughter from the insidious ravages of an incurable disease. There’s an innate emotional power in this dichotomy.

Gunn adeptly exercises a necessary modicum of visual dexterity to emphasize character drive. Late in the second act, Sharon’s image is blurred through a bottle of booze when she hits rock bottom, feeling the inadequacy of her identity as a mother and miracle worker. From editor Parker Adams’ lively, propulsive montages to cinematographer Maya Bankovic’s diffused lighting inside the Schmitts’ cozy house, the grounded aesthetics are absorbing and, at times, sobering. The deceased mom’s absence is felt throughout the family home, both within the empty, lifeless corners imprisoning Ed in grief and debt, as well as the handprint-emblazoned mailbox in need of repair (one of the film’s glaring metaphors).

Despite such strengths, “Ordinary Angels” the film has notable weaknesses as well. It’s a blessing that Gunn and screenwriters Meg Tilly and Kelly Fremon Craig find room for subtlety and nuance, but they lack confidence that their audience will remember what’s at stake, spelling it out on a few occasions. Ed’s crisis of faith is neither innovative nor sufficiently integrated, reducing to simplistic tropes and scenarios. Composer Pancho Burgos-Goizueta’s sappy strings are too omnipresent, doing much of the heavy lifting in the obstacle-upon-obstacle third act, racing to the makeshift hospital transport location during an already harrowing, real-life snowstorm in 1994.

Though the fictionalization of the actual events is ramped up for cinematic effect (the real Sharon is not an alcoholic, nor did she suffer from a strained relationship with her son, and they neglect to mention in the end credits that Michelle passed away in 2021 at age 30), the narrative sentiments ring true without any false notes. There’s nothing more heartening than seeing community banding together to help desperate folks out, especially a family suffering from death and disease. Better yet, it serves to remind us that it doesn’t take heavenly miracles to get out of trouble. All it requires is empathy — and maybe a little bit of Swank’s go-getter gumption.

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