'Ordinary Angels': Hilary Swank instills hope in a blizzard

(2.5 stars)

Inspired by an attempt to get a sick woman to a transplant hospital in the middle of a 1994 Kentucky blizzard, “Ordinary Angels” is an upbeat drama that's a challenge for cynics: even if you resist another gutsy, heart-tugging Hilary Swank performance. A hyper-true story, who among us can deny the sublime beauty of Jack Reacher's tears?

The film opens as Ed Schmidt (Alan Ritchon, Prime Video's action series “Reacher”) finds himself in trouble in the early 1990s. Well, some problems. After his wife contracts a rare genetic disease, a working-class roofing contractor is left to raise their young daughters, one of whom, 5-year-old Michelle (Emily Mitchell), is awaiting an organ donation as she battles the disease. She took her mother. Money is tight, health insurance is lacking and medical bills are swallowing Ed whole, even as his mom (Nancy Travis) urges him to keep the faith.

After all, a force of nature threatens to upend their lives. This heartland hurricane is Sharon Stevens (Hilary Swank), a local hairdresser with a big personality, who learns of the Schmitz's plight in the newspaper. “I think I'm going to have to pay for their transplant,” she tells her skeptical BFF (Tamala Renee Jones), as Sharon pours her energy into attending AA meetings she doesn't need.

Instead, Sharon inserts herself into the lives of these strangers, finding purpose as she rallies their Louisville community. Help a struggling family. Not all heroes wear capes; Some bid on fringed leather jackets and bright denim skirts, and finicky corporate executives with Southern charm and homemade muffins. Still, the movie is smart enough to ask: How much of Sharon's selflessness is due to denial and selfishness?

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Ritchan is the biggest surprise of the film. Sun-baked in worn denim and work boots, sporting a mustache and a live-in twang, he's the anti-Reacher. A gentle woman-father to ailing Michael and his older sister Ashley (Skywalker Hughes), her Ed is of few words and struggles to accept help despite the despair in his vision. Director John Gunn delights in rendering scenes of Ritchon re-shingling roofs and hammering wood. But when Ed excuses himself and cries quietly in his bedroom, you wish Ritchon would play more emo roles.

Swank, meanwhile, is bursting with energy, but Sharon regrets keeping him company. It's a subtly complex role that a great actor elevates, and here Swank proves she's no two-time Oscar winner. You discover the omission in Sharon's philanthropy long before she admits it to herself.

Despite Gunn's painfully on-the-nose choices, this latest film from producers Kingdom Story Company and Lionsgate is generally tied for last year's Christian hit “Jesus Revolution.” Folds in themes of hope with a light touch. But halfway through the movie's long 116-minute run, the phone rings, starting the clock waiting several states away to get Michael to a new liver. During that deadly historical blizzard, “Ordinary Angels” transforms from family drama to action thriller.

All of a sudden, metaphorical tests of faith are thrown Ed's way, just as his skidding pickup lands in a spot. A mashup of a Hallmark movie and a Roland Emmerich disaster movie. As friends, strangers, and even the local news station join in on the serious effort, the cliched jabs at the extreme make this true story feel strangely contrived.

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You can find an increasingly confused and closed-minded condemnation of the program's development history. The screenplay is credited to “The Edge of Seventeen” writer-director Kelly Freeman Craig and actor-writer Meg Tilley, who wrote the script a decade ago as a vehicle for composer-actor Dave Matthews. Gunn and producer John Ervin, co-writers on faith-based films (“I Still Believe,” “American Underdog”), are credited with additional script material.

We understand that it took a village of “ordinary” angels to save a little girl in real life. Behind the scenes, the film may have been underutilized.

PG At area theaters. Contains thematic content, brief gory imagery and smoking. 116 minutes.

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