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'Ordinary Angels' review: Hilary Swank leads endearing (and familiar) faith-based drama

Courtesy of Lionsgate


Hailing from the faith-based distribution arm that made last year’s “Jesus Revolution” a sleeper hit, the similarly light-hearted “Ordinary Angels” brandishes a familer type of uplifting messaging. In this case, it’s Hilary Swank playing a Kentucky hairdresser who inspires an entire community to rally around the cause of a very sick little girl in desperate need of a liver transplant. Despite Jon Gunn’s film sticking to the basics of the tearjerker handbook, “Ordinary Angels” is hard to resist, made all the more potent by the true story elements. If not for that, this would be just another tacky melodrama (though, it has some of those hallmarks too) rather than an uplifting one. 

Set in Louisville, 1993, we’re introduced to Sharon (Swank - sporting an oversized hairdo and southern drawl) who regularly drinks the night away before nursing her hangover with a mimosa. She’s clearly an alcoholic who doesn’t know how to ask for help, even though her best friend, played by Tamala Jones, drops her off at AA. Her problems are miniscule compared to Ed Schmitt (Alan Ritchson of “Reacher” fame), a blue-collar roofer struggling to make ends meet after his wife passed away from a rare disease and now his youngest, Michelle (Emily Mitchell) has been dealt the same deadly hand where, unless she gets a liver transplant, will suffer the same fate. 

Behind on every bill and up to his eyeballs in hospital debt, Ed, who doesn’t have health insurance, is all but tapped out when Sharon arrives on his doorstep with an envelope of cash she raised after doing a fundraiser at the saloon. Realizing that won’t be nearly enough, Sharon devotes all her energy and resources into securing enough funds to help starve off debt collectors and ensure Michelle gets necessary treatment and is prepared for a transplant should her name move up the list (easier said than done). 

What follows is an endearing story about family, faith, and the generosity of others. In the wrong hands, the role of Sharon could easily fall on the side of overwhelming and tedious, but Swank makes it work to her advantage and juggles the character’s internal struggles as well as her family ones (though the movie awkwardly drops a subplot about her son out of nowhere) with ease. And though he’s mainly known for his gruff, physically dominant portrayal on the “Reacher” series, Ritchson ends up being a worthy complement to Swank as the emotionally strained father-figure who is endlessly devoted to his children. 

But it’s the finale, set around a last-minute, race-against-the-clock attempt to get Michelle to a hospital hundreds of miles away that will send audiences out in tears. While I’m sure the logistics of how this happened was heavily dramatized (in fact, the closing credits features actual footage of the whole ordeal and just from those brief snippets, you can see some changes), it’s still handled effectively enough to push it over the finish line.

It’s religious elements won’t be lost on viewers either (at various points, people are told not to lose their faith), but the Kingdom Story production company has always done a decent job (see “I Can Only Imagine”) at telling a story more so than preaching it, making it accessible to a wider, non secular audience. And when you have a story as unbelievable as this, it’s hard not to get swept up in the emotional catharsis despite all its predictability and narrative loopholes. At the end of the day, we’re all human. 

Grade: B- 

ORDINARY ANGELS opens in theaters Friday, February 23rd. 


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