Movie Review: ‘Miracle’ a family-friendly indie

Local movie buffs often complain that our theaters are dominated by big-name Hollywood spectacles – at the expense of lesser-known art films, foreign works and independent cinema.

Nonetheless, Lycoming County has over the years hosted a few non-mainstream movies that weren’t playing in a lot of other towns: “Mickey,” “Soul Surfer,” “End of the Spear,” “Fireproof” – and one of my favorites, 2009’s Little League-themed “The Perfect Game.”

Distributors seem to find our area suited to sports, family films and religious themes; the latter certainly covers “A Miracle in Spanish Harlem,” opening Friday at Digiplex Destinations, 300 W. Fourth St. – and in a mere 100 other theaters nationwide. (Compare, for instance, “Catching Fire,” currently playing on more than 4,000 screens.)

“Miracle” isn’t going to win any major awards, but it certainly jibes with the inspirational, family-friendly indies that tend to wend their way to our town.

The first feature from DigiNext and Vista Clara, “Miracle” features a largely Latino cast in the tale of a young Manhattan widower struggling to raise two daughters, keep a grocery running and come to terms with a deity who has allowed so much pain in his life.

He’s also falling in love with a new neighbor, played by Kate del Castillo, one of Latin America’s most popular actresses – known for roles in “Under the Same Moon,” “Weeds,” “CSI:Miami” and “La Reina del Sur.”

“Miracle’s” storyline is contrived, and the direction by newcomer Derek Velez Partridge is uneven at best; in addition to gaping plot holes, one often senses that Partridge and company are more concerned with their message than they are with character and dialogue.

Ordinarily, that makes a tale flat and manipulative; but this effect is undone by “Miracle’s” strong ensemble cast. Castillo is lively and magnetic – one can see why Tito and his daughters are attracted to her – and Luis Antonio Ramos (“Lucky 7,” “Burn Notice,” “Nip/Tuck”) is a natural as Tito.

With his slouchy hat, downbeat clothes and permanent five o’clock shadow, Tito isn’t exactly a looker; but Ramos gives him instant likability, while leaving room for the character’s occasional anger, deception and selfishness.

The cast is rounded out with fine work from Adrian Martinez as a mentally handicapped employee, Andre Royo as a ubiquitous church helper, Priscilla Lopez as Tito’s mother and Brianna Gonzalez-Bonacci and Fatima Ptacek as his kids (the latter voices Dora for “Dora the Explorer”).

All these characters have an irresistible appeal that grants unearned depth to “Miracle’s” somewhat shallow writing; viewers will find themselves engaged with the story despite its weaknesses.

Vista Clara prides itself on family-friendly productions, and “Miracle” manages a suitable urban ambience with virtually no violence, sexuality or bad language. In this regard, it’s a welcome break from other December fare like “Oldboy,” “American Hustle” and “Out of the Furnace” – none of which seem to promise much holiday spirit.