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Heaven Is for Real (2014)

| April 23, 2014 | 0 Comments

The greatest relief of the new Christian-based drama Heaven is for Real is that it tells a story with a Christian message without embarrassing God.  Unlike the awful God’s Not Dead, which pasted its message to your forehead with thumbtacks, here is a film with good acting, and a true mystery about the existence of the all-mighty.  In that way, it plays less like a religious postcard and more like the kind of genial message movie the Jimmy Stewart use to make with Frank Capra.

The movie opens by telling us that it is “based on a true story” and that’s both a proclamation and a challenge.  It is based on a 2010 book by Reverend Todd Burpo in which he claims that in 2003 his four-year old son Colton had a near-death experience during a trip to Denver when he was rushed to the emergency room with a ruptured appendix.  The boy’s chances were not good, yet he made it.  He was never clinically dead, but he later recounted a tale of being out of his body and observing the surgeons in the operating room.  He also recounted the whereabouts of his parents during his surgery, then claimed that he went to Heaven, talked with angels, sat on Jesus’ lap and also met Todd’s father (who died before the boy was born) and an older sister who died in childbirth.

The movie recounts this story in simple, unforced detail.  Greg Kinnear gives a good performance as Todd Burpo, a man with a mouth full of comforting words and a heart filled with doubt.  His faith in God is shaky even before his son’s experience.  He wears those doubts on his sleeve and even the parishioners of his Nebraska church can sense his unease.  Then Colton goes to the hospital and Todd cries out to God not to take his son.  When Colton later reveals that he saw this event happen during surgery, Todd isn’t sure what to think.  Everyone is curious at first, but as time goes on, his relations within his community come apart and so, very nearly, does his marriage to his wife Sonja (Kelly Reilly).

As time goes on, and Colton sticks to his story, something in Todd’s soul begins to stir.  He is filled with questions about his role as a minister, a father and as a man of God.  It’s easy to understand why.  Colton has such a haunting, matter-of-fact way of describing his experience that we begin to believe him ourselves.  Colton is played in a lovely performance by young Connor Corum who avoids the traps of the typical cloying Hollywood acting kid.  The way he recounts his story is quite beautiful.

The best thing about Heaven is for Real is that it never conclusively nails down whether Colton’s story is real or not.  The outlying question raised by the film is whether he actually visited the spiritual plane or has he simply observed and regurgitated things seen and overheard from the adult world around him.  With that question in mind we have to steady ourselves for the revelation that the movie will inevitably land on the proclamation made by the film’s title.  It does so, but it doesn’t fall on you like a ton of bricks.

Yet, this is not a perfect movie.  For every good quality, there’s something bad right behind it.  It’s a bit too long and director Randall Wallace (who won an Oscar for the screenplay for Braveheart) plays the same emotional note over and over.  The somber tone of the film is right but the narrative structure wears the edifice of a TV movie.  Some scenes seem to end before they begin, especially during a church meeting in which Burpo is confronted with doubts about his son’s claims.  It’s an important scene but it is handled so awkwardly that it almost seems unfinished.  There’s also a problem with the film’s speech-filled ending which looks and feels forced.  There’s an earlier scene in which Todd sits in a dark church and asks God, “Where are you?” that would have been a perfect note for the movie to go out on.

Still, this is a solid film if you’re willing to overlook its gaping flaws.  It doesn’t pound you over the head with religious furor, nor does it sweep it under the rug.  This is a pure and honest film that asks a very serious and sobering question: What happens when we die?  The movie has its answer out of the mouths of babes.  Whether you believe it is a matter of pure faith.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2014) View IMDB Filed in: Drama