By Lynn Venhaus

If you didn’t know it really happened, “Ordinary Angels” is the type of schmaltzy movie aiming straight for the heart that some would scoff at, yet even though cynics will pick it apart, people seeking an uplifting jolt will be touched by the selfless acts of human kindness.

Inspired by the true story of Kentucky hairdresser Sharon Stevens (Hilary Swank) who single-handedly rallied an entire community to help a widowed father Edward Schmitt Jr. (Alan Ritchson) save the life of his critically ill young daughter Michelle (Emily Mitchell), who needed a liver transplant.

Those who need their faith in humanity restored can find plenty to respond to in this tearjerking drama, from the heartfelt performances to the duplication of a harrowing effort by a community responding to a life-or-death situation that really took place in Louisville, Kentucky, during an historic snowstorm when 17 inches fell on Jan. 17, 1994.

Two-time Oscar winner Swank plays a hot mess of a hairstylist who decides to help a widowed father and his two daughters after she reads a newspaper article detailing the youngest’s battle with an incurable liver disease. As brassy as she is, Sharon finds purpose in this mission and gets things done.

You know the adage, “People come into your life for a season or a reason,” well this is that moment. Thirty years ago, in one of Kentucky’s worst blizzards, a life was saved by people going the extra mile, coming together, and making things happen against impossible odds.

Alan Ritchson as Ed and Emily Mitchell as Michelle in Ordinary Angels. Photo Credit: Allen Fraser

Not that life was easy for the Schmitts under any circumstance. Think: The Book of Job. Or Stevens, for that matter.

The film is set mostly in 1993. Ed’s beloved Theresa (Amy Acker) has died of a congenital liver disease, biliary atresia, which their daughters have, Ashley (who received a transplant in 1991, which the film leaves out), and Michelle, who is in desperate need of a transplant, as medical bills mount, and her condition worsens. The film is at its best when focusing on the not-enough time and money scenario.

And then the cavalry arrives when Stevens becomes their lifeline, starting a fundraiser and then crusading for financial breaks, corporate donations and helping Ed find more work as a roofer.

 It is one of these incredulous examples of divine intervention. The film, in partnership with Kingdom Story Company, a faith-based operation responsible for Kurt Warner’s story “American Underdog,” isn’t preachy, in case you were wondering, or pandering. The filmmakers display earnest intentions, and it’s a terrific public service announcement for organ donors.

Stevens is fictitiously written as an alcoholic with an estranged grown son, and Swank sympathetically shows a tormented woman masking her pain by throwing herself into the role of miracle worker. She leans in as this sassy, saucy do-gooder who won’t take no for an answer, but her undivided attention and tenacity help a grieving family in need.

This is the kind of role Swank excels at, transforming into a force of nature. It’s inspiring to watch this flawed woman’s journey as she makes a difference, called to action (my sister refers to these ‘Godwinks’ as ‘Angels with skin on”), and restores her faith – and those around her.  

Hilary Swank as Sharon in Ordinary Angels. Photo Credit: Allen Fraser

Ritchson, who has played a wide array of tough action heroes, from Aquaman on “Smallville” and Raphael in “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” movie reboots to Lee Child’s retired military police officer Jack Reacher on the current Amazon Prime Video TV series, is good at depicting the strong, silent type who’s hiding his pain. He’s overwhelmed by grief, medical bills and a nagging feeling he isn’t doing enough for his family.

The conflict here – because of course we need one – is that Ed resents Sharon swooping in and helping his family when he thinks he should be the superhero. He’s wary of her pushiness and questions her motives. But as he pushes back, she pushes forward. His mom Barbara (Nancy Travis), helping with the girls, considers her a gift, and so do the kids.

The young actresses playing Ashley (Skywalker Hughes) and Michelle (Emily Mitchell) couldn’t be cuter, and the situation resonates easily (and not in a manipulative way – but have tissues nearby).

Director Jon Gunn’s filming of the race-against-the-clock sequence to get to an Omaha hospital for Michelle’s liver transplant is truly remarkable when empathy and mutual aid are tested by nature’s harsh elements. Cinematographer Maya Bankovic intensely captures the raging blizzard and editor Parker Adams’ work ramps up the tension.

Co-screenwriters Meg Tilly, the actress now retired, and Kelly Fremon Craig, who wrote and directed “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” highlight the transformative power of human connection and what happens when people collectively meet a moment.

If a film celebrating community and kindness doesn’t elicit some joy during this dreary winter, then we, as a people, are in a truly sad place. We need every opportunity to see how people can respond to others in need with extraordinary compassion and resourcefulness. “Ordinary Angels” is a welcome beacon of hope in these difficult divisive modern times.

Hilary Swank as Sharon and Alan Ritchson as Ed in Ordinary Angels. Photo Credit: Allen Fraser

“Ordinary Angels” is a 2024 drama based on a true story, directed by Jon Gunn and starring Hilary Swank, Alan Ritchson, Nancy Travis, Tamala Jones, Emily Mitchell and Skywalker Hughes. It is rated PG for thematic content, brief bloody images and smoking and the run time is 1 hour, 56 minutes. The film opens in theaters Feb. 23. Lynn’s Grade: B.