Finally, The Role Hilary Swank Deserves: Our Review of ‘Ordinary Angels’

Posted in Movies, Theatrical by - February 21, 2024
Finally, The Role Hilary Swank Deserves: Our Review of ‘Ordinary Angels’

There is a parallel world of Christian American cinema that operates apart from Hollywood. From feel-good comedies like Jesus Revolution to thrillers like Sound of Freedom, its movies are big business in North America, earning millions (sometimes over a hundred million). Now comes Ordinary Angels, a tear-jerking, Christian-friendly approximation of a prestige picture. And it’s not half bad! Actually, it’s pretty good.

Directed by Jon Gunn and distributed by Lionsgate, Ordinary Angels stars Hilary Swank in the inspirational true story of Sharon Stevens, a Kentucky-based recovering alcoholic who helped save a little girl from liver failure. While I pretty much cried from the first sight of Michelle (Emily Mithcell), the adorable 5 year-old Sharon moves heaven and earth to save, Ordinary Angels is subtler than it sounds. It’s more than a weepy Hallmark Movie; it’s a story of how recovery from any health condition – be it alcoholism or liver failure – requires community and inclusion.

When we meet Sharon, it’s 1993 and the hairdresser cuts a formidably complicated figure. A successful small business owner, she also likes to party a little too hard. After she injures herself dancing on a table at the local pub, her friend and business partner Rose (Tamala Jones) suggests Sharon attend AA meetings. While reluctant to admit she has a drinking problem, it is through a fellow alcoholic’s share that she realizes what she needs: “a purpose outside of herself.” 

When Sharon hears about Michelle, a gravely sick child whose mother has just died, the hairdresser shows up at the funeral and begins a crusade to save the family from a Medical/Industrial Complex that threatens to bankrupt them before they can secure a life-saving liver transplant. But while Sharon is tenacious and capable, the film doesn’t require her redemption arc to be perfect. 

As the film portrays her, Sharon is brassy but not caricaturish, kind but not saintly. Armed with moxy and a canny ability to manipulate people, Sharon gets the family’s medical bills erased by a private hospital that usually just cares about profits. She even gets rich people to donate their private planes so Michelle can be flown to Omaha for surgery! 

Sharon is, it would seem, a genius at getting greedy people to share their resources. But her life is also messy, and Ordinary Angels makes that clear without condemning her. She relapses after a fight with her estranged son and gets drunk at an inappropriate time. However, Sharon is still allowed to be the hero of the story, flaws and all. When Michelle needs a liver transplant during a historic snowstorm, Sharon has the people of Louisville clearing the snow from the streets to get her there. Like a superhero in a Marvel movie, she not only does good herself, but inspires others to do good deeds by her example.

When Michelle’s stoic father Ed (Alan Ritchson) finally admits how much he appreciates Sharon, his description of her as a “miracle” feels more satisfying than saccharine. The people Sharon supports appreciate and support her in turn, motivating her to keep going. The film’s message of radical inclusion isn’t something all Christians support these days, but anyone who actually understands The Bible knows Jesus would be fist-pumping in the theatre!      

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Ordinary Angels is how it provides a genuinely good role for Swank, a middle-aged actress with two Oscars who’s been forgotten by mainstream filmmakers. Even Alaska Daily, Swank’s brief foray into Network TV, was canceled after a single season. It’s hard for actresses of a certain age in Hollywood, but the world of Christian filmmaking seems to appreciate Hilary Swank’s formidable talents. Good on Jon Gunn for giving her a meaningful role! 

Ordinary Angels is not a bad movie. In fact, if you see it, you’ll probably enjoy it…

This post was written by
Sarah Sahagian is a feminist writer based in Toronto. Her byline has appeared in such publications as The Washington Post, Refinery29, Elle Canada, Flare, The Toronto Star, and The National Post. She is also the co-founder of The ProfessionElle Society. Sarah holds a master’s degree in Gender Studies from The London School of Economics. You can find her on Twitter, where she posts about parenting, politics, and The Bachelor.
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