As cinematic sermons go, “Heaven Is For Real” is slicker than most. Unlike the vast majority of so-called faith-based films, the adaptation of the book by Todd Burpo, pastor of a Wesleyan church in a small Nebraska town, that recounts his four-year old son’s vision of heaven during a near-death experience, the picture had a substantial budget, boasts a cast of name—if not top-tier—actors (Greg Kinnear, Kelly Reilly, Thomas Haden Church and Margo Martindale) and was helmed by a reputable studio director (Randall Wallace, who made “We Were Soldiers” and “Seabiscuit,” along with the unfortunate remake of “The Alamo”, and shot—quite beautifully—by able cinematographer Dean Semler in lush widescreen visuals. But it’s still a sermon.
Kinnear plays Burpo, who barely makes ends meet by working carpentry jobs to supplement his ministry salary (while also moonlighting as a volunteer fireman and a high school wrestling coach). He’s well liked by his growing congregation, including board stalwarts Nancy Rawling (Martindale) and Jay Wilkins (Church), and has the perfect family in wife Sonja (Reilly) and cherubic kids Cassie (Lane Styles) and Colton (Connor Corum). Life may be tough, but it’s good.
Or at least it was before Todd suffers a few setbacks, including a broken leg and a bad bout of kidney stones. Those seem like minor problems, however, after the kids return ill from a family trip to Denver and while his sister’s condition improves, little Colton takes a turn for the worse. It turns out he has a ruptured appendix, and it’s only emergency surgery—as well as prayers from the congregation—that pull him through. Once restored to health, though, the boy drops occasional remarks about an out-of-body experience he had during the operation, in which he visited heaven. He describes it as peopled by singing angels and an extremely friendly Jesus, who rides a rainbow-colored horse and plopped the lad onto his lap. Later on he’ll mention that he was greeted there by a couple of spirits he didn’t know—his dad’s grandfather and a young girl who identified herself as his other sister, the one who died in a miscarriage that he never knew about.
The persuasiveness of Colton’s recollections creates a crisis of faith for Todd (why is not entirely clear) that might remind viewers of a certain age of the “Mr. McBeevee” episode of the old Andy Griffith show: should he believe his son, or try to explain things away rationally? It also causes a rift within the church when the pastor embraces the boy’s account as true, something that some of the congregants—in particular the skeptical Nancy—consider an embarrassment. It also causes the Burpo family some difficulty with the larger community—not just the taunting kids at Cassie’s school but Todd’s pals at the firehouse—when the local newspaper and radio station play up the story. Not to worry, though: Todd will smooth everything over with a stirring homily (as well as the book, of course, though it goes unmentioned).
Believers will embrace “Heaven is For Real,” happily enjoying the opportunity to say “I told you so” to doubting Thomases as bits and pieces of Colton’s story emerge that apparently confirm the reality of his experience. Non-believers, on the other hand, will dismiss the whole account as a fantasy—maybe an innocent one dreamed up by a child, but perhaps one intentionally fabricated by his father to sell books.
One doesn’t need to come down one way or the other, however, to conclude that while the film is unquestionably sincere, it’s also pretty heavy-handed, even when it tries not to be (as in the portrayal of Nancy, to whom Martindale brings her customary depth). The depiction of little Colton’s vision smacks of the worst examples of preciousness found on Hallmark cards, and having the fellow who plays Jesus (Mark Mohrhardt) appear only from the rear, “Ben-Hur” style, is a cutesy trick used only to allow for another “a-ha!” moment at the very end. Burpo’s big concluding sermon is overdrawn, too, with all the shots of congregants tearing up, nodding in agreement, and coming together in what amounts to a group hug afterward.
Still, the film is bolstered by Kinnear’s earnest performance, by solid support from Church and Reilly as well as Martindale, and by the turn from little Corum, who isn’t exactly natural but whose full-cheeked little face certainly possesses the needed angelic look.
“Heaven Is For Real” is thus both innovative and familiar. It breaks the ‘faith-based’ mold in terms of production quality, but in the end succumbs to the usual pattern of playing to the faithful rather than genuinely leaving the issues it raises in doubt.