Annabel Beam nearly died on that fateful December day in 2011.
The then-8-year-old, who had so rarely found happiness in her young life since being diagnosed with painful and incurable intestinal disorders three years prior, had enthusiastically clambered up an old cottonweed tree in the yard of her family’s Burleson home.
However, the joy of play soon gave way to what seemed to be the horror of happenstance: A branch broke, plummeting her 30 feet into the hollow of the tree, where she remained trapped for six hours.
Yet, not only did Annabel (Anna for short) escape with no injuries, her illnesses — pseudo-obstruction motility disorder and antral hypomotility disorder, meaning parts of her intestinal tract were blocked and paralyzed — disappeared.
On top of that, she claimed that, while being unconscious after the fall, she had gone to heaven, where Jesus told her, “I have plans for you on Earth that you cannot fulfill in heaven. … Whenever I send you back, there will be nothing wrong with you.”
Her doctor, Boston gastroenterologist Samuel Nurko, who previously had said there wasn’t much he could do for her, said some time after the accident that Annabel was “completely asymptomatic, is leading a normal life and is not requiring any therapies.”
Her story became the basis for a 2015 book, Miracles From Heaven: A Little Girl and Her Amazing Story of Healing (Hachette Books, $24), and now a film, Miracles From Heaven, starring Kylie Rogers as Anna, Jennifer Garner as her put-upon mom, Christy, Martin Henderson (Grey’s Anatomy) as her dad and Queen Latifah as a family friend.
The film, co-produced by Franklin Entertainment and Dallas pastor T.D. Jakes (both made the faith-based 2014 hit Heaven Is for Real) and being distributed by Sony, opens March 16.
Jakes, who wasn’t aware of the incident until the book came out, says the idea for the film came up while he was contemplating a sequel to Heaven Is for Real, also about a child who says he has seen the afterlife.
“It wasn’t a sequel, but it was similar and it was a powerful story,” he said in a phone interview. “We pitched it to Sony and they agreed.”
You have to have somebody with acting chops. … When we got Jennifer Garner, we were thrilled.
From the beginning, Jakes said, he knew he wanted someone of Garner’s stature to play the mom who’ll go to any length to try and find a cure for her daughter.
“You have to have somebody with acting chops handling the emotions that are conveyed in that,” he said. “When we got Jennifer Garner, we were thrilled.”
With its crossover cast and marketing muscle, Miracles From Heaven looks like it might resonate beyond the usual faith-based audience. Jakes says this is deliberate.
“We don’t want to exclude anybody,” said Jakes. “We think that faith is one of the things in the film, [but] it’s also about family and medicine. There are so many things to it that any viewer would enjoy it.”
Director Patricia Riggen, known more for such secular films as 2015’s The 33 (about the 33 trapped Chilean miners who were rescued in 2010), says she had no qualms about making a movie with religious overtones.
“If it’s a good story, it’s a good story,” she said. “What I did see was the possibility of making it more than religious or dogmatic, to make it spiritual and inspirational. I wanted to expand the universality of this story so that it could really affect people of any belief.”
Mom to mom
Garner, a mother of three, says what drew her to the project was the aspect of family strength.
“I don’t see it as a faith-based film,” she said in a separate interview, though echoing Jakes’ sentiments. “But it’s about family that drew from faith in their life. … This is something that gets them through this.”
The actress says she wasn’t aware of the original 2011 accident nor the book until the script was sent to her “out of the blue.”
“I stayed up all night thinking about it,” she said. “I just felt I needed to do it.”
She says she could really relate to Christy (whose middle name happens to be Faith), a woman who refused to surrender to a healthcare system that told her that Anna’s situation was hopeless.
“I’ve really grown from Christy and respected her from the beginning,” Garner said. “There’s something very special about their [Christy and Anna’s] relationship.”
I’ve always been somebody who has been a person of faith, and that hasn’t changed. … It was nice to be on a set where this was part of the conversation.
Garner, who’s from Houston originally, says working on this film has turned her into a churchgoer again. She has said in recent interviews promoting the film that she and her children have started going to a Methodist church in Los Angeles.
“I’ve always been somebody who has been a person of faith, and that hasn’t changed,” she continued in the phone interview. “[And] it was nice to be on a set where this was part of the conversation.”
Georgia as Texas
But that set wasn’t anywhere near Texas.
One odd thing that Lone Star State viewers will note is that Miracles From Heaven, though set in North Texas with multiple references to Fort Worth, was actually shot in the Atlanta area. The reason for that is the same reason so many productions opt for New Mexico, Louisiana or Georgia over Texas: tax incentives.
“I would have loved to have done it here,” said Jakes, who has produced nine films since 2009. “But the state of Texas has not been as supportive as some other states in terms of film and entertainment.”
The geography may be faulty but, if the number of times a trailer has been viewed is any indication, Miracles From Heaven looks like it will be successful. Sony has reported that the trailer has been viewed more than 130 million times over all platforms, a record for a faith-based film.
“I’m thrilled about that, but there is no science to this,” Jakes said. “Sometimes you think you’ve got a blockbuster and the public doesn’t respond. … Garner is a huge asset, and it’s a story that cuts to the heart of many Americans.”
More than 130 million Times the Miracles From Heaven trailer has been viewed over all platforms, a record for a faith-based film.
After all, the film puts its characters in the middle of an expensive and seemingly endless medical crisis, an element to which many moviegoers can relate. But then it throws in the aspect that something miraculous happened to Anna.
Either, as the character of Dr. Nurko speculates in the movie, her hard fall somehow reset her entire system, prompting the intestines to start working again. Or, as Anna says, she met Jesus.
There are certainly online detractors who don’t believe the latter. Garner is not one of them.
“If you talk to Annabel, she would never make up a story for three minutes,” the actress stated. “I take this girl at face value. She has an incredibly old soul in a little girl’s body.”