I haven't watched many Christian movies, but I guess my first reaction when I do tends to be to tense up.
For this genre, the pressure is really on. It's a major handicap that, from the outset, we already know what the film's message is going to be, which makes any attempt to approach it look contrived. There's also little freedom in its style - to be 'as good as' a secular movie, it bizarrely has to look and sound just like one, which runs a huge risk of blandness. No permission to break the mould with anything too creative here. Worst, the makers are simply not allowed to get anything wrong. Anything. Just one sub-convincing piece of acting is all it takes to bring the whole production's credibility crashing down like a ton of bricks.
Add to all that the minuscule budget that almost every niche movie has to make the whole thing fly with, and it's a wonder that any financier is willing to take the risk these days.
Letters To God hits a straight average, which in the circumstances is always going to be an achievement.
For me, its chief challenges lie in its editing. On this UK DVD, the telecine pulldown used has resulted in the picture freezing maybe once every second, which I got used to. Some of the close-up pans have a jerky background too. At the 23:33 mark there's an isolated shot of a box, a Bible and Tyler's letters that is, for its 11 second duration, mute. If this happened in a mainstream movie, then we'd assume that there was a reason for this creative decision, but in a Christian DVD it just looks like carelessness.
Over in the average corner, these 105 minutes are terribly slow. While this is again partly down to the editing, the main culprit is the actual performances.
There is a beat after almost every single line in the entire film.
If you take enough interest though, this can enable you to really connect with the characters and to care about them.
After all, everyone in this unbelievably nice.
Why wouldn't you like them?
Well, maybe because they take so long to exchange sentences.
All of which pulls the trigger very effectively for the dramatic developments of the final act. When Tyler dies, it's hardly unexpected, but the subtlety with which his letters to God (unashamedly a metaphor for prayers) have impacted those around him without his awareness of any of it is hugely life-affirming.
And that really is the film's strength. Most of the actors here are good, but the two central kids are absolutely excellent. This film would have been a disaster with anything less.
The film's Christian agenda also gives it some real edges over secular fare. As mentioned above, at the end, the main character dies. Dies. Not many Hollywood movies will get green-lit with a conclusion that might depress audiences and so discourage them from coming to see the film a second time.
I also already mentioned the prayer / community metaphor. God is in this film, but silently so that you only really notice his presence throughout after the end credits have rolled.
Well, that is if there were any end credits. Apparently they assumed this would get shown in churches, who love to show films and cut the credits off, so the makers have considerately already performed this service for us.
Maybe it's a metaphor for eternal life.