Producers: Jon Berg, Roy Lee, Dave Matthews, Johnathan Dorfman, Sarah Johnson, David Beal, Kein Downes, Jon Erwin and Andrew Erwin   Director: Joe Gunn  Screenplay: Meg Tilly and Kelly Fremon Craig   Cast: Hilary Swank, Alan Ritchson, Nancy Travis, Tamala Jones, Amy Acker, Skywalker Hughes, Emily Mitchell, Drew Powell and Dempsey Bryk   Distributor: Lionsgate

Grade: C

The story of the “miracle snow baby” of Louisville, Kentucky, got national attention back in January, 1994.  A three-year old toddler, Michelle Schmitt, had been on the waiting list for a liver transplant for two years. Like her older sister Ashley, who had received a new liver in 1991 when she was three, Michelle suffered from biliary atresia, a potentially fatal congenital condition.

What set Michelle’s case apart from her sister’s was that when a liver for her suddenly became available on January 16, Louisville had been hit by a terrible blizzard, leaving roads impassable and making it nearly impossible to get her to the airport for an emergency flight to the hospital in Omaha where the surgery was to be performed.  News reports of the situation led to volunteers shoveling a church parking lot to allow for a helicopter to land and transport the child to the airport, and from there to Omaha, where the surgery was successfully completed.

It’s an uplifting story, ready-made for inspirational screen treatment.  Yet as written by Meg Tilly and Kelly Fremon Craig and directed by Joe Gunn, “Ordinary Angels” isn’t inclined to follow the titular adjective in the slightest degree; it wants so badly to be extraordinary that It radically ratchets up the drama, adding shopworn subplots and overwrought details that by gilding the lily reduce a touching real story to Hollywood overkill.

The focus, in fact, is shifted from the Schmitt family to Sharon Stevens, a hairdresser who was an important part of a volunteer effort to arrange and pay for the transplant.  As depicted here, however, it’s virtually a one-woman show, making the story a tale of Sharon’s redemption through selfless service to a higher calling as much as a triumph for little Michelle (who, in this version, is not so little, her age being raised to a precocious five, while her sister’s earlier operation is simply ignored). 

Sharon is played, with a vivacity that brings Julia Roberts’ Erin Brockovich or Sally Fields’ Norma Rae Wilson to mind, by Hilary Swank.  The hairdresser is reimagined here as an alcoholic long estranged from her son Derek (Dempsey Bryk), an aspiring musician whom she continually leaves voicemails that go unanswered.  Her nighttime club revels, and their aftermath, have gotten so extreme that her salon colleague Rose (Tamala Jones) intervenes and forces her to attend an AA meeting.

But what really changes her is seeing a newspaper story about Michelle’s need for a transplant, accompanied by a funeral announcement for her mother Theresa (Amy Acker).  Sharon goes to the service at the family’s church, where the pastor (Drew Powell) delivers a comforting eulogy.  At the reception afterward she meets Michelle (Emily Mitchell), Ashley (Skywalker Hughes) and their father Ed (Alan Ritchson), a contractor who’s struggling to raise the girls with the help of his mother Barbara (Nancy Travis) and pay off the family’s medical bills.

The experience moves Sharon to help the Schmitts while struggling to give up her drinking.  She raises more than three thousand dollars via a Hair-a-Thon of free services at the salon, which she delivers to a thankful Barbara and a bewildered Ed.  Discovering the extent of their economic distress, she becomes a dynamo, reorganizing the family finances (including persuading the hospital, with remarkable ease, to forgive $400,000 in arrears), finding roofing jobs for Ed (widely available after a recent tornado strike) and arranging for a corporate jet whenever needed for the flight to Omaha.  She also, of course, becomes a family friend, growing close to Michelle and Ashley, though Ed remains resistant to her overreaching, especially when she tries to enlist television coverage of his daughter’s plight.

Stevens was, in fact, devoted to the Schmitts’ cause, but so were many others—depicted here, if at all, as peripheral figures.  And Michelle was an emaciated toddler, not Mitchell’s mostly vibrant five-year old afflicted with periodic seizures.  And when the crisis comes during the January snowstorm, the script piles obstacle upon obstacle to gin up edge-of-the-seat excitement.  Ed’s struggle to drive Michelle to the airport is stymied by closed roads; happily they’re rescued by the police, whose vehicle Ed commandeers to travel off-road (by a route only he supposedly knows) back to the city.  Sharon is instrumental in securing a helicopter and war-vet pilot to fly at night while the blizzard is still in full force, and the volunteers use their own coats to mark the landing spot they’ve cleared (in the lot of the Schmitts family’s own church, no less).  (Actually, the shoveling occurred in daylight after the storm had subsided, and the helicopter was a medevac vehicle.)  To top things off, Derek shows up to help, and he and Sharon reconcile with a hug.  As should be clear from this, “Ordinary Angels” takes what’s a simple, endearing story and turns it into something bigger, blowsier and—worst of all—less real.

Yet if you can overlook the changes that have been made and the clichés that have been added and have an appetite for manipulative sentimentality and a dose of religiosity (Gunn has made “faith-based” films in the past, and though the Christian element is more restrained here, there are certainly moments—as when Barbara encourages her son to keep the faith when challenged by events), you will probably welcome “Ordinary Angels.”  Swank delivers an energetic if hardly subtle turn, and Ritchson, known mainly for burly he-man roles in superhero TV shows and the current “Reacher” series, offers a surprisingly restrained, effective turn as Ed Schmitt.  Travis is even better as his hard-pressed, concerned mother, the youngsters are engaging, and Jones is a sassy, perceptive best friend.  The film is well made, too, with the Canadian location convincingly wintry and solid craft contributions from production designer Nazgol Goshtasbpour (the interiors are especially fine), cinematographer Maya Bankovic and costumer Heather Neale.  Parker Adams’ editing sometimes stutters a bit, but that seems the fault of a script that skips over material like Sharon’s astonishingly persuasive pitches to big-time donors; the score by Pancho Burgos and Goizueta lays the schmaltz on rather thick.

If you’re not too concerned with accuracy in your “real life” tearjerkers, “Ordinary Angels” will suffice.  But it comes out more Hollywood than Louisville, and the closing “afterward” captions fail to note that Michelle died of a stomach aneurism at age thirty in 2021.  (You don’t want to spoil an upbeat finale, perhaps.)