‘Ordinary Angels’: Hilary Swank conjures hope in a snowstorm

(2.5 stars)

“Ordinary Angels,” an uplifting drama inspired by the effort to get a sick girl to a transplant hospital amid a massive 1994 Kentucky snowstorm, poses a challenge to cynics: Even if you could resist another spunky, heartstring-tugging Hilary Swank performance in this overstuffed true tale, who among us can deny the sublime beauty of Jack Reacher’s tears?

The film opens in the early 1990s as Ed Schmitt (Alan Ritchson, star of Prime Video’s action series “Reacher”) has a problem. Well, a few problems. After his wife succumbs to a rare genetic illness, the working-class roofing contractor is left to raise their young daughters, one of whom, 5-year-old Michelle (Emily Mitchell), is awaiting an organ donor as she fights the disease that just took her mother. Money is tight, health insurance is nonexistent and the medical bills are swallowing Ed whole, even as his mom (Nancy Travis) urges him to keep the faith.

On top of all that, a force of nature is threatening to upend their lives. This heartland hurricane’s name is Sharon Stevens (Hilary Swank), a local hairdresser with a big personality, who learns of the Schmitts’ plight in the newspaper while buying a six-pack the morning after a bender. “I think I’m supposed to give them money for the transplant,” she tells her skeptical BFF (Tamala Reneé Jones), who’d much rather Sharon put her energy into attending the AA meetings she doesn’t think she needs.

Instead, Sharon inserts herself into the lives of these strangers, finding purpose as she rallies their Louisville community to aid the struggling family. Not all heroes wear capes; some wear fringe leather jackets and sparkly denim skirts and finesse corporate execs into doing their bidding with Southern charm and homemade muffins. Still, the movie is smart enough to ask: How much denial and self-interest are at the root of Sharon’s selflessness?

Ritchson is the biggest surprise of the movie. Sun-baked into worn denim and work boots, sporting a mustache and a lived-in twang, he’s the anti-Reacher. A tender girl-dad to the ailing Michelle and her observant older sister Ashley (Skywalker Hughes), his Ed is a man of few words, who struggles to accept help despite the despair in his stoic gaze. Director Jon Gunn is happy to provide glimpses of Ritchson handily re-shingling roofs and hammering wood, if you’re into that sort of thing. But when Ed excuses himself so he can sob softly in his bedroom, you want Ritchson to take on more emo roles.

Swank, meanwhile, crackles with energy but lets the cracks show in the nights when Sharon has only her regrets to keep her company. It’s the kind of subtly complex role a great actor elevates, and here Swank proves she’s not a two-time Oscar winner for nothing. You detect the avoidance in Sharon’s altruism long before she admits it to herself.

Despite Gunn’s painfully on-the-nose choices, this latest film from producers Kingdom Story Company and Lionsgate, who teamed on last year’s Christian hit “Jesus Revolution,” generally folds in themes of faith with a light touch. But when the phone rings halfway through the film’s overlong 116 minutes, starting the ticking clock to get Michelle to the new liver waiting several states away during that deadly historic blizzard, “Ordinary Angels” veers from family drama to action thriller.

Suddenly, metaphorical tests of faith are flung into Ed’s path as though his skidding pickup landed in a mashup of a Hallmark movie and a Roland Emmerich disaster pic. And as friends, strangers and even the local news station join the herculean effort, clichéd stabs at greater meaning make this true story feel strangely contrived.

You might trace the increasingly clunky and cloying denouement to the project’s development history. The screenplay is credited to “The Edge of Seventeen” writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig and actor-writer Meg Tilly, who wrote it a decade ago as a vehicle for musician-actor Dave Matthews. Gunn and producer Jon Erwin, co-writers on faith-based films (“I Still Believe,” “American Underdog”), are credited with additional script material.

We get that it took a village of “ordinary” angels to save a little girl in real life. Behind the scenes, maybe the film could have used fewer.

PG. At area theaters. Contains thematic content, brief bloody images and smoking. 116 minutes.

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