<i>Heaven is for Real</i> is Better with Questions Than Answers

Christa Banister

DVD Release Date: July 22, 2014
Theatrical Release Date: April 16, 2014
Rating: PG (for thematic material including some medical situations)
Genre: Drama/Adaptation
Run Time: 100 min.
Director: Randall Wallace
Cast: Greg Kinnear, Kelly Reilly, Thomas Haden Church, Connor Corum, Lane Styles, Margo Martindale, Lane Styles

Most of the negative chatter surrounding Heaven is for Real focuses on the claims of a very cute four-year-old—and whether or not he really visited heaven.

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It's an uncomfortable prospect, no doubt, especially considering that young Colton's recollections featured a few details that don't exactly line up with what's in Scripture (Jesus having a rainbow-colored horse or blue-green eyes, for instance, or the observation that everyone in heaven is young). But in light of details he couldn't have possibly known—an encounter with the sister his mother had miscarried years before and never told him about or Colton's chat with a relative who'd died long before he was born—it's still difficult to dismiss his story altogether.

Truth be told, these nit-picky details of the narrative and the whole could-it-possibly-be-true debate aren't even the most interesting aspects of Heaven is for Real, anyway. Most of the film's target audience already believes heaven is for real, and Colton's story—true, quasi-true, false or otherwise—won’t change that.

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What's most compelling about Heaven is for Real is rather than merely preaching to the choir like many films targeted toward Christians do, what happens with Colton (newcomer Connor Corum) and his family forces the faithful to truly wrestle with what's being shared from the pulpit on Sunday mornings. Saying you believe something is one thing, but what happens when what you believe is being challenged in a significant way?

In what’s one of the most positive portrayals of a pastor on the big screen, Greg Kinnear (Little Miss Sunshine) plays Colton’s father, Todd Burpo. There’s something very genuine and approachable about Todd, and as a viewer, you can’t help rooting for him and his family. It’s a testament to Kinnear’s nuanced acting that Todd works so well as a character, and his performance definitely anchors the story.

Todd is not only crazy about his wife Sonja (Kelly Reilly, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows) and an involved, loving father to his children, Colton and Cassie (Lane Styles, also a burgeoning actress), but he's the rare spiritual leader who doesn’t come across as skeevy or a bombastic know-it-all onscreen.

Lest Todd come across as too good to be true, he also struggles. Like so many people these days, he’s seriously stressed about paying his bills, a problem that only escalates when Colton winds up needing major surgery. Considering how close Colton was to dying, the family finances naturally take a backseat, but still, you feel the weight of the burden on this family. It’s not something easily solved with a few prayers and can-do attitude either.

Just when things start settling down with Colton on the mend, another major layer of uncertainty in Todd’s life surfaces when Colton starts talking about heaven and what he saw while he was there. It’s then when Todd finds himself in a full-on crisis of faith. Basically, if heaven is something he’s always preached about, why is his own son’s story so unsettling? 

As Colton’s story gains traction in the local media, it also puts Todd at odds with his congregation. Not surprisingly, there are concerns from the board. Not wanting their church to become a circus rather than a reverent house of worship, they have to decide whether Todd is the best man to continue shepherding the flock.

In terms of pure entertainment, Heaven is for Real doesn't always deliver. Like many inspirational films, it has those schlocky moments where some eyes will roll, and it probably would’ve been better if we’d simply heard about what Colton experienced rather than seen it. The visuals of the angels, not to mention the moments where Colton is shown interacting with Jesus are inevitably more hokey than moving. While showing is usually better than telling in skilled storytelling, that’s not the case here. Less would’ve been more.

Those hiccups aside, however, it’s the questions about faith in the real world that still make Heaven is for Real worth a look. While there’s no doubt where the story is headed, the bulk of the journey offers plenty for viewers, believers and otherwise, to wrestle with—not only about heaven but life on earth.

CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers):

*Published 4/16/2014

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