Ordinary Angels’ Won’t Win ‘Best Picture’ as It Deserves, But It’s a Gorgeous, Redemptive Movie Like Frank Capra’s Classics

By John Zmirak Published on April 6, 2024

It left theaters all too quickly. A beautifully made movie with a genuine Hollywood star (Hillary Swank), this is the kind of film Christian viewers say they’re hungry for. Not enough of them found out about it in time to make it a big hit on the big screen, but Ordinary Angels is now available via streaming, and it’s precisely the kind of movie families should gather to watch. Not just because it’s “wholesome” and doesn’t feature nude scenes that embarrass everyone; no, this film is far more than harmless entertainment, and its message runs much deeper than some “feel-good” Christian movies that we watch, bemused, and forget.

I paid to see Ordinary Angels on the big screen, and happily paid again to stream it at home — eager to catch all the subtleties my teary eyes had missed the first time around. After ruminating for several days over my second viewing, I’m finally prepared to do the film some kind of justice.

A Drunk Trying to Save Herself

On the surface, this true story is simple: In the early 1990s in Louisville, Kentucky, a middle-aged divorced woman, Sharon (Swank), has a serious drinking problem. She deals with it via denial. She works as a hairdresser, powering through her hangovers after nights when she slams back tequila shots, then jumps up to dance on the bar as the college boys she was flirting with cringe or sneer.

Sharon has almost no contact with the son whom she raised solo. (The dad abandoned them to tour with his rock band.) The young man won’t even take her phone calls, still angry as he is over her reckless, booze-soaked parenting.

A friend literally coerces her to attend a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous at a church, where Sharon indignantly insists she doesn’t belong. But something one of the penitent drinkers says there resonates with her: You need to find something to focus on in life beyond yourself. You need a purpose.

You Don’t Know Me, But I’m Here at Your Wife’s Funeral …

On an early-morning beer run, Sharon spots a story in the local newspaper, a story of a family in some ways sadder than her own: A local builder (Ed) whose wife just died, leaving him to raise two young daughters, Ashley and Michelle. Far worse, five-year-old Michelle has a rare liver disease requiring costly treatments to stave off imminent death; the only cure is a transplant, and she’s several names down on the organ recipient list.

Sublimating the brashness that lets her shamelessly dance atop bars, Sharon crashes the funeral at a solemn, tear-sodden church. She meets the grieving family — and Ed is duly unsettled by this total stranger’s intrusion. Undaunted, Sharon goes off and researches more about the family, finding out how bad is its plight.

And that’s when she really gets started. Sharon corrals her coworkers and blankets the area with fliers for a haircutting fundraising event — and delivers the cash to Ed in an envelope at his front door. His old-fashioned, blue-collar manly pride tempts him to refuse the help, but his mother (movingly played by 90s comedy icon Nancy Travis), who helps with the girls, won’t let him.

Getting Addicted to Good Works

That opens the floodgates. Soon Sharon is pouring herself, heart and soul, into helping Ed and his daughters, despite his obvious discomfort with the idea. She goes over his bills with him and helps him deal with collection agencies. She barges into the CEO’s offices at hospitals and negotiates down Ed’s debts. She pours all her “addict energy” into saving Michelle’s life and Ed’s family.

Meanwhile, Sharon’s estranged son — whom she cluelessly visits to boast about her good works — can’t help but resent the fact that his mother is finally parenting someone … as she didn’t parent him. Still in denial about what a third-rate mother she’d really been, Sharon walks off, puzzled.

Hitting Bottom, and Finding God There

At some point, Sharon hits the proverbial “bottom.” Her frenetic steps to help this group of strangers starts harming her best friend and business partner. Finally Ed tells her to step back, saying he no longer wants her help. He actually confronts her on the fact that she is substituting his family in the place of alcohol as the object of her addiction. That stings. 

That’s the dramatic low point, where human efforts max out and seem destined to end in futility and regrets. And it’s where God’s hand comes in. A series of events unfolds, involving Michelle and a liver newly available for transplant. That means to save Michelle’s life, the family must travel hundreds of miles in less than 24 hours during the worst snowstorm in decades.

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I don’t want to give away the ending. But what’s most powerful about this story is the light it throws on some theological mysteries. For instance, have you ever wondered why:

  • God didn’t just give His people the kind of Messiah they thought He’d promised them?
  • Instead, He sent a “suffering servant” who was in fact His only begotten Son?
  • The redemption Jesus brought us didn’t reverse all the evil effects of Adam’s fall?
  • Jesus suffered so horribly in His Passion? Medieval theologians pointed out that a single drop of His blood (such as He spilled at His circumcision) would have been enough to wash out our sins.
  • Jesus still bore the marks of His Passion after He’d risen — and apparently will bear them for all eternity?
  • We each must carry crosses emulating Jesus, instead of simply basking in the benefits of His?

I know I’ve wondered long and hard about each one of these things.

O Happy Fall! O Necessary Sin of Adam

Sharon finds redemption and reconciliation in this story. But she finds it through the painful path of her own brokenness and addiction — actually harnessing those qualities to use for Ed and his family. Neighbors and strangers make real sacrifices and take serious risks to help Ed save little Michelle. Ed doesn’t get back the beloved wife he lost, but must soldier on in the hope of meeting her someday in Heaven.

The redemption we treasure as Christians comes through the very death that Adam brought on us all, which Jesus didn’t cancel but miraculously transformed. Likewise our lives as Christians aren’t buffered from suffering. Instead that painful fact is elevated, transfigured, recycled … and turned into the very stuff of beatitude and joy.

Not a bad takeaway from for a 2024 movie you can rent from Amazon this weekend.

 

John Zmirak is a senior editor at The Stream and author or coauthor of ten books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Immigration and The Politically Incorrect Guide to Catholicism. His upcoming book is No Second Amendment, No First.

 

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