Lots of people believe in heaven. But if a 4-year-old told them he'd been there, would they believe him?
“Heaven is for Real” is built around this theological moment of truth. Based on a true story told in the book of the same name, the film tells the story of Todd Burpo, the pastor of a Wesleyan church in rural Nebraska. In order to support his wife and two children, Burpo (played by Greg Kinnear) balances his pastoral duties with work as a garage door repair man, and he is also a member of the local volunteer fire department. It's a busy life, and thanks to the economy, it's a life on the brink of bankruptcy.
One day at the end of a family outing, Burpo’s son Colton (Connor Corum) falls ill and winds up in the hospital with a ruptured appendix. Thanks to successful surgery and lot of local prayers and support from the community, Colton pulls through, and everything goes back to normal until he begins to drop hints about what he encountered during his lifesaving operation.
Almost casually, and with an odd amount of detail and certainty, Colton talks about leaving his body during the operation, going to heaven and meeting Jesus. He also remembers what his family members were doing throughout the hospital while he was under.
The response to Colton’s story is where “Heaven is for Real” separates itself from the two-dimensional faithful typically portrayed on the big screen today. You’d expect everyone’s response to be a unanimous show of support and affirmation, but instead Colton’s story leads members of the community, even his own family, to question the depth of their own individual faith.
The result is a film that dramatizes a modern miracle but is even more effective as a portrayal of sincere individuals asked to examine their own beliefs. Burpo may be a pastor, but he wasn't exactly serene when Colton was on the operating table. Nancy Rawling (Margo Martindale) may be a member of the church board, but the loss of her son makes such talk of heaven and angels a tender subject. Instead of cartoon characters exaggerated to show extreme faith or extreme hypocrisy, these are real people with genuine perspectives.
It would be hard to think of a more appropriate setting for a film of this type than rural Nebraska. Its endless, ponderous fields and landscapes are practically a supporting character in the film, lending a beautiful tone to underscore the depth of the themes it is exploring. Early in the film, Kinnear and company participate in an afternoon softball game, and you half expect John Kinsella to walk onto the outfield with Shoeless Joe Jackson.
Kinnear does an excellent job as the down-to-earth pastor at the epicenter of the story. Kelly Reilly, who plays Burpo's wife, Sonja, is great as a woman torn between the struggles of her husband and the sincerity of her child.
Yet for all its strengths, “Heaven is for Real” is not a perfect film. It leans a bit too hard on expository dialogue where subtle visuals might have been more effective. And it does get a little heavy-handed in places. But the way it handles an interesting source story makes up for a lot.
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There are plenty of movies out there that will try to get an audience to question its faith; this one will allow the faithful to examine their beliefs from a position of confidence.
"Heaven is for Real" is rated PG for some frightening moments, including some injury-related gore.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. You can see more of his work at woundedmosquito.com.