Review: Hilary Swank Elevates Ordinary Angels From Hallmark Fare to Something of a Sweet, True Story

Based on a true story (I’m guessing with more than a few embellishments), Ordinary Angels is the story of Sharon Steves (Hilary Swank), an alcoholic hairdresser living in small-town Kentucky, searching for purpose and a place to anchor her addictive personality where it might actually do someone else some good while keeping her away from booze. Almost by accident, she stumbles into the funeral of Theresa Schmitt (Amy Acker, seen in an emotional opening sequence and in flashbacks), whose grieving husband Ed (Alan Ritchson, Reacher) now must raise his two young daughters, Ashley (Skywalker Hughes) and Michelle (Emily Mitchell), on his own. To make matters all the more taxing, the Schmitts don’t have health insurance, so they are saddled with hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical bills thanks to Theresa's prolonged illness and daughter Michelle’s liver disease, which requires a transplant for her to survive.

When Sharon discovers their situation, she steps in and does a small fundraiser for the family at her salon that amounts to a few thousand dollars. The family knows nothing about this until Sharon shows up with an envelope full of cash, and while it barely meets their needs, it helps immensely with the most immediate debts. A local roofer, Ed is a private person, so when Sharon asks to let her help them organize and figure out their finances, he’s hesitant, but the girls fall for her bubbly personality, and Ed’s mother, Barbara (Nancy Travis) is beyond grateful that someone is looking out for them. Before long, Sharon is not only part of the family but her refusal to take no for an answer helps much of their debts disappear.

Directed by Jon Gunn (maker of films with titles like The Case for Christ and Do You Believe?), Ordinary Angels is a bit of a corny endeavor, just walking the thin line of a faith-based movie without quite getting there (although the word “miracle” is brought into play a couple of times). The most shocking aspect of the film is that it was written by Kelly Fremon Craig (who wrote and directed The Edge of Seventeen and Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.) and actor Meg Tilly (marking her first turn as a feature screenwriter). The film has a few too many diversions and side-stories, including a truly pointless subplot about Sharon attempting to reconcile with her grown son (Dempsey Bryk), whose memories of growing up with an alcoholic mother have left deep scars.

As saccharine as the film can get, it’s also quite impressive the lengths Sharon went to for this family, from finding corporate sponsors and reaching out to news organizations, to talking down or eliminating the family’s medical debt. In the wake of recent tornado damage in the area, she’s even able to find Ed work that makes him money like he’s never made before. I applaud the film for not inventing a possible romance between Ed and Sharon, since one never developed in real life. Ordinary Angels concludes with a race against the clock to get Michelle to the nearest transplant hospital during a blizzard, which I thought was ridiculous, until we find out through closing-credits news footage that it's entirely true. 

There are times when the movie feels like it belongs on the Lifetime or Hallmark channels, but through it all, two-time Oscar-winner Swank (as she often does, even in the worst movies she’s in) gives everything she’s got and continues her run of never delivering a bad performance. The film offers few surprises, manipulative emotional moments, and isn’t exactly elegantly directed, but somehow, it still got me just enough that I’m recommending it ever so slightly. Sometimes a classic heartstring-puller works on you when you least expect it, and that's exactly what happened with this clunky little drama.

The film is now in theaters.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.