Heaven is for Real – 2014
Director Randall Wallace
Starring Greg Kinnear, Kelly Reilly, Connor Corum, Lane Styles, Margo Martindale, Thomas Haden Church
Screenplay Wallace and Christopher Parker based on the book by Todd Burpo and Lynn Vincent
Heaven is for Real starts out in a familiar enough place for faith-based films. Todd Burpo is perhaps the best person in a good town of Imperial, Nebraska. He fixes garage doors, accepts old rugs as payment because times are tough. He takes the rugs to donate to the Fire Department he works as one of his five jobs. From there, he reports to his wrestling coaching job, then brings flowers to a grave and then finally home. His day does not end there, though. He is stopped at the door from going to dinner with his son with a request to go to the hospital to minister for a parishioner about to go gently unto that good night. It’s a rough day when you are a believer or in Todd’s case, Pastor, but it’s rewarding.
Things are good in the Burpo house, until their son, Colton, gets appendicitis and approaches, but does not cross the river Jordan. Colton comes back, but he’s a different. He has lost fear of dying and he speaks plainly of the truth he has witnessed. This truth, that heaven is a real place and Jesus is a nice guy with bright eyes, is hard for his father to process. He believes that his son does believe what he saw, but rational thoughts creep in and try to replace miracles with explanations grounded in reality.
Eventually, his heart begins to turn, and then the problem is letting others in on that turning while not losing them in the process. His wife (Reilly), a psychiatrist, his friends and the board of directors at the parish all take turns ratcheting the doubt and Todd does not know how to counter these feelings. Revelations come, albeit slowly, and the eye of the beholder expands just a little.
In the hands of many directors, the material for Heaven is for Real runs the risk of being maudlin and mock able. The same elements are here for this film as in other films of its kind. It’s not enough drama for the boy to hit a rough patch and find religion, waiting for everyone else to catch up. If they had the strength of their conviction, they would try to make it work with just this. Instead, we have subplots of financial hard times and the risk of losing his job to add to the mix. It’s not clear how the former adds anything to the story, but having a faith-based community doubt the thing they are all faithful about is incredibly relevant. Thankfully, Wallace is capable of handling this plot line in a responsible and believable way.
The strength of Heaven is for Real is in the way it reveals that all of us keep our faith at arm’s length. It’s okay to pray for it to happen, but as soon as someone stands up and says that they have experienced the Heaven of our dreams, we are likely to keep them at bay. Particularly effective is Todd’s journey, his wife Sonja, as well that of Nancy Rawling (Martindale). Martindale is a Wallace veteran who, in a very few scenes, manages to show the hurt that we all feel can’t and likely shouldn’t be solved here on earth.
That said, the kid is not an actor, nor is he really required to be. That he lacks the ability to act often makes the experience seem more genuine, over all.
Wallace handled some equally sappy material with Secretariat but animal biographies within family based films are a little easier to handle than the fertile cheese ground of faith. The scenes depicting Colton’s time in heaven are a strength, especially the angel voices and the site of Jesus, which ties directly and beautifully with the prologue and epilogue of the film.
Heaven is for Real asks good questions, and it tries to avoid pat answers. It’s not always successful, but it is a lot better than most films of it’s kind.
(***1/2 out of *****)