I'm sitting in a packed auditorium, watching an advance screening of an upcoming feature film. As the plot unfolds, the audience around me watches in rapt silence, at times breaking into laughter, more often sniffling and wiping away tears. The movie ends, the lights come up, and local screenwriter Pat Doughtie joins the film's producer on stage as the audience stands and applauds. It is a bittersweet epilogue to one of the most infuriating local news stories of the last decade.
Surely you remember Julie Buchanan, the surgically enhanced bimbo who went to jail back in 2007 for stealing $160,000 from Granbery Elementary School while she was its PTA president? Of course, money's been stolen from PTA funds before and doubtless will be again. But what made this particular story so appalling was that part of those stolen funds had been raised to help a student who was dying of brain cancer. Add to that the revelations that Buchanan spent the cash on plastic surgery, a cruise and lavish parties, and you've entered Inside Edition territory.
Like thousands of other Tennesseans, I was repulsed by news images of Buchanan as she impassively stood trial, outfitted in tight designer clothing that showed off the gravity-defying boobs she'd purchased with a pint-sized cancer patient's money. My husband Dennis, a Channel 4 reporter, covered her court appearances as well as her young victim's heartbreaking final days at home, where he was cared for by his father — Pat Doughtie.
While Julie went to jail for a few years, Pat coped with the loss of his son by writing about it. He took a screenwriting class and spent the next four months working on a movie called Letters to God, a fictional film with a plotline drawn from Tyler's short life. Buchanan, mercifully, was left out of the story altogether.
Even without a Cruella de Vil, the script was good enough to catch the eye of movie producer David Nixon, whose last independent film, Fireproof, took Hollywood by surprise when it opened in the No. 4 box office spot back in 2008. Filmed for just $500,000, the Christian film about marriage has grossed more than $33 million to date and spawned a popular marriage workshop still used in churches across the country.
Nixon hopes Letters to God will do for families affected by cancer what Fireproof has done for husbands and wives — bring them closer together and closer to their God. Both films have the unmistakable warm-and-fuzzy synthetic glow of a Hallmark movie, but despite their inevitable descent into corniness, the fact is that they stick with you. I may have laughed out loud when Kirk Cameron threw a trashcan-tossing hissy fit in his portrayal of Fireproof's angry husband, but when the movie was over, I have to admit I was secretly determined to be a better wife. Likewise, while watching Letters to God, I cringed at how quickly the alcoholic mailman recovered and came to Jesus upon reading Tyler's fictional missives — but as the closing credits rolled, I was sobbing right along with everyone else.
Speaking of everyone else, that special screening I attended was held specifically for members of Grace Baptist Church, where the Doughties go each Sunday. Five years ago, those church members paid Pat's mortgage and bills so that he could take off time from work and stay home with Tyler. Showing them his new movie was a small way for Pat to say thanks.
As he stood onstage at the end of the show and looked out at all the familiar faces, many with tears streaming, Pat began crying himself. In that moment, I remembered something he'd told my husband while his son was dying, something that had helped him get through those agonizing last days as much as anything.
"[Tyler] said 'I picked you,' " Pat told him. "And I said 'What do you mean?' He said, "When I was in heaven, I picked you for my dad.' "
Watching Pat stand before an applauding crowd five years later, I had to wonder if Tyler was right. He may have lived less than a decade, but thanks to the man he picked to be his dad, he'll be known, loved and missed by millions of people.
Letters to God opens in theaters on April 9.
Read more Suburban Turmoil at www.suburbanturmoil.com.
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