Novice Filmmaker, 98, Brings Faith to the Big Screen

The Girl Who Believes in Miracles opens Friday, April 2, in theaters nationwide.

Laurence Jaffe
Laurence Jaffe (photo: Trailmaker Productions)

“For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.” —Matthew 17:20 

When The Girl Who Believes in Miracles opens in theaters Good Friday, the indie film from a first-time filmmaker will have at least three things going for it:

  • The message — that faith can move mountains — is inspiring;
  • Actress  Austyn Johnson, who plays 11-year-old Sara Hopkins, is adorable; and
  • Laurence Jaffe, the 98-year-old WWII veteran who produced this film, is amazing.

Granted, the film brings together many of the time-worn cliches for which Christian family-friendly movies are known: A little girl has a strong faith, and God works miracles, and everyone comes to believe. There’s an athletic event (a soccer game), a preacher at a Sunday service, and a lustrous glimpse of heaven.

There’s one character who left me puzzled: a beloved priest, Father Alonzo Alvarez. Father Alvarez wears a Roman collar, but is he Catholic? His clergy shirt is pale blue, not the customary black, but that is within the realm of possibility. What puzzled me more was that around his neck, he wore a rosary. Was that Hollywood’s way of screaming “I’m a priest” in case you hadn’t noticed? Is he not Catholic but a Protestant minister? And if so, why a rosary?

Despite the dogged familiarity of some scenes, The Girl Who Believes in Miracles is good, clean entertainment — and what a relief it is to be able to once again visit a movie theater!

About the message: Many in the congregation seem passive during the sermon about faith, but young Sara Hopkins listens intently and smiles. God listens to prayer and answers? Well, then Sara is willing to take God at his word, and she begins to pray. First her ardent prayer seemingly changes the play at a soccer game, then she finds a dead bird and reaches to heaven in prayer — and the bird flies away, restored to life. The miracles grow ever more dramatic: a blind girl receives her sight; a boy with a severed spine can walk again; a girl is cured of terminal cancer. When the news of a young miracle-worker reaches the local TV station, people all over town reach out to Sara, begging for her earnest prayers.

The viewer can’t help but ponder the efficacy of prayer. Scripture frequently assures us that God hears our prayers. For example, Jeremiah 29:11 says, “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

So yes, yes, God wants to give you every good thing. But is God merely a heavenly vending machine, quick to dispense miracles on request? Or does God have a divine plan for our lives which may (or may not) include healing in a particular case? The Catechism of the Catholic Church quotes fourth-century monastic theologian Evagrius Ponticus: “Do not be troubled if you do not immediately receive from God what you ask him; for he desires to do something even greater for you, while you cling to him in prayer.”

About the cast: Sweet Sara Hopkins is played by dimpled darling Austyn Johnson. You may remember Austyn from the 2017 musical drama The Greatest Showman.  And The Girl Who Believes in Miracles attracted other noted actors including Academy Award-winner Mira Sorvino (Mighty Aphrodite, Do You Believe?), Emmy Award-winner Peter Coyote (E.T. The Extraterrestrial, A Walk to Remember), and Kevin Sorbo (Let There Be Light, God's Not Dead).

About the producer: This is the part of the story that most caught my attention, and which bears retelling. Laurence Jaffe, a first-time filmmaker, is 98 years old!

Jaffe joined the Marine Corps when World War II broke out because, as he said, “I wanted to serve with the toughest and the best.” After the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he was stationed for nine months in Nagasaki, where he helped medical units treat the injured. After the war, he earned a Master’s Degree from Columbia University, then launched a successful career in marketing.

But after a long career and a happy family life (Jaffe’s wife Hope passed away last fall, after 72 years of marriage), Jaffe set out to do something different. “I guess I’ve never been one to look back, only forward,” he said, explaining why the idea of retiring to a rocking chair doesn’t interest him. “That’s the secret to a full life.”

Of the film, the endearing producer said, “I think that, after the year we’ve all endured, the world needs an uplifting movie like this to give us the capacity to trust once more.” He hopes that the film will generate enough money to support a major initiative to help the poor through a program he created to benefit disadvantaged children in Gainesville, Florida.

And will Laurence Jaffe go on to make new films, as he nears his milestone 100th birthday? “Absolutely!” he said. With his characteristic good humor, he added, “The joke on the set was that Moses and I went to Hebrew school together. I may not be a spring chicken, but I’m still clucking!”

The Girl Who Believes in Miracles opens Friday, April 2, in theaters nationwide.