Letters to God plays like a standard Lifetime TV movie, with dragging moments of saddening drama, generically happy fun times for the family dealing with a young boy with cancer, and plenty of opportunities to pile up tragedies for the sake of poignancy – but it doesn’t feel realistic, inspiring or heartfelt. It’s lengthy and schemes to shape the audience’s opinions, most noticeably with the overwhelming push for believing in God through the use of a sick child, a subject few can ignore outright. The biggest shame is that although this material isn’t new, it could have been powerful; instead, the result is a heavy-handed and stereotypical method of recruiting.
Maddy Doherty (Robyn Lively), an employee at the Arnold Palmer School for Children, lives with her two sons, Ben (Michael Bolten) and Tyler (Tanner Maguire) and their grandmother (Maree Cheatham). Tyler has cancer, has had brain surgery, radiation treatment, and remains without hair due to chemotherapy. He’s continually sick and the doctors have told Maddy not to get her hopes up, but Tyler keeps his good humor by playing pranks on his mother – not the kind of thing to do to loved ones when you’re dying. Ben, the older brother who doesn’t believe in God, struggles with all of the family’s time, money, and attention going to Tyler – he feels invisible. It seems selfish, but it is unfair. He’s also afraid that his brother will stay sick and that they might not have any fun times together ever again. Tyler does have support from his best friend Samantha (Bailee Madison) and her grandfather, Cornelius Perryfield (Ralph Waite), a kindly older gentleman whose career in the theater has made him a tad eccentric.
Tyler’s method of coping involves writing letters, some even to the bully at school (for some reason it’s the wimpiest, scrawniest, bespectacled kid), but mostly to God, addressed: “To: God, From: Tyler”. Walter Finley (Christopher Schmidt), a mailman due for an extended leave and in dire need of a decent replacement (who looks like an old game hunter from The Jungle Book), regularly delivers to Tyler’s home at 244 Laurel Lane. Like finding a kitten on his back porch, he can’t just walk away from the letters to god, and when he goes on vacation, Brady McDaniels (Jeffrey Johnson), an ex-military man, now a drunkard trying to bury demons, takes over. His first day on the job starts with an observation: “I’m in hell.” When he stops by Tyler’s house, the boy accidentally vomits on his shoes. At first he doesn’t know what to do with the letters to god – shred them, take them to church on Sunday, or dump them in the dead mail bin. In time, he’ll become a part of the Doherty’s lives and will greatly influence them all – as well as be moved by Tyler’s faith.
The religious tones are incredibly weighty and excessive. The film goes to great lengths to instill the idea that worship can be beneficial and that believing in god is the key to happiness and, quite possibly, the cure for cancer. In the same way that a tear-jerker tries to manipulate your emotions for drama or romance, Letters to God attempts to pressure us into faith and reaching out for divine intervention. It doesn’t help that these burdensome themes run the course of nearly two hours. At least Tanner Maguire’s performance is relatively authentic and his acceptance of the situation and his realist outlook on other’s attitudes (some with kindness and understanding, but many with fear and hatred), is refreshingly appropriate. But the unmanageably substantial montages and pauses to listen to a song while flashbacks play (including flashbacks to previous scenes in the film) makes it clear that the storytelling approach wasn’t well thought out or adapted for anyone beyond the exceptionally devout.
– The Massie Twins (GoneWithTheTwins.com)