Based on a true story, Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear) is a hardworking man who manages to balance his family life – wife Sonja (Kelly Reilly) and their two children – with his work that includes pastoring a church, handyman jobs, coaching the local wrestling team and volunteering as a fireman. Times are tough for them but they manage to make do anyway. Times get even tougher for the Burpo’s after their four-year-old son Colton (Connor Corum) suffers a ruptured appendix. Although his condition is very critical, near fatal even, Colton comes out of the surgery.
After the surgery, though, Connor tells his family he experienced heaven while on the operating table, and begins to describe things his family and fellow church members can’t quite explain.
Heaven Is for Real is what seems like 50th film, out the 800 set to be released this year, marketed by the studios to get the church-going butts into the theater seats. Gimme Shelter was one that worked. Son of God (pretty much the same segments from History Channel’s The Bible) was a bland, forgettable take on the man it’s named after, and God’s Not Dead, while not getting me to question God’s existence, certainly got me to question why he allows bad things to happen to good people – bad things like that film, for example. Heaven Is for Real, though, features a talented cast, like the one we got in Gimme Shelter, but also features Randall Wallace behind the camera. Wallace is best known for writing Braveheart and the underrated war drama We Were Soldiers, also directing the latter film. There’s a lot of talent here, so does it payoff?
Unlike, God’s Not Dead, which featured flat, cardboard, stereotype characters on both sides of the God argument aisle, co-writer/director Randall Wallace does do a fairly solid job at grounding this film within a realism that often escapes most faith-based films. We get the typical message pounding and heart tugging that comes with the territory in a film as obviously titled as this one, yet the Burpos are a family with struggles that at least the viewer can relate to, and the talented cast behind that family helps.
Whether leading the way in Little Miss Sunshine and Auto Focus or delivering strong supporting turns in The Matador and his Oscar nominated role in As Good As it Gets, Greg Kinnear (who previously worked with Randall on We Were Soldiers) has always been an underrated acting asset. Kinnear naturally fits the role of a Middle American family man, who, even as a preacher, struggles with his own faith when it’s put to a test no parent ever wants to experience – nearly losing a child. He sells it when he’s up at the pulpit, and has a presence about him that makes him a believable small-town preacher, but it’s the scenes between just him and either Kelly Reilly or Connor Corum that are the strongest.
I should point out that even though Todd believes, “He can’t be making this up. He’s only four!”, I can attest to the fact that preschool-aged kids make things up. Miss Sue from my La Petite Academy days could back that up.
As for the supporting cast, Kelly Reilly delivers some equally strong work opposite Kinnear as Todd’s wife, who’s experienced her own personal trials, and Connor Corum, while not great, still pulls off a serviceable job for being just a kid. As hard as it is to get a decent performance out of a child, serviceable is pretty good. Both Thomas Haden Church and Margo Martindale don’t really get that much to work with, although Martindale does share one touching graveyard scene with Kinnear.
Here’s the problem with this film, aside from the sometimes hokey soundtrack during the more lighthearted moments. They show us heaven, or at least Colton’s view of it. What we see is not only unsatisfying and cheesy in appearance, it takes you out of the film whenever it shows onscreen. Having a feathered haired Kenny Loggins for a Jesus made the experience a tad bit more laughable. It’s no wonder when Colton asks the angels he witnesses if they know Queen’s “We Will Rock You” they respond with laughter. He should’ve asked if they knew “Danger Zone”.
I’m not making fun of the real Colton’s situation. Regardless of whether he saw heaven or not, he and his family fought through a very serious situation. This movie, though, slightly drops the ball in revealing heaven, and would’ve been so much better had Wallace decided to leave it up to the viewers’ imaginations. He’s already proven that he’s a strong enough writer to handle it that way. Why not put us in the shoes of those characters struggling to believe Colton’s story? Leave the heaven stuff to Colton’s descriptions of it; in fact, the whole point of this film isn’t the place of heaven itself, but the locals having their faith regarding heaven tested through this kid. Convince us of what the film doesn’t – or I should say shouldn’t – show us like the individuals in the film. Certain scenes such as Colton telling his mother about seeing “the baby that died in her tummy” carry enough emotional weight to affect the viewer without needing the additional moments of Footloose Jesus introducing Colton to his unborn sister.
That’s not a spoiler, by the way. It’s in the trailer, so I’m not ruining anything for you.
Heaven Is for Real sometimes borders on too much sentimentality, and goes for a Frank Capra-esque ending at the pulpit that’s purely there to tug some more on those heartstrings. That said, while this is a flawed film, it still managed to exceed my expectations of it, which weren’t much and lands somewhere in between not as good as Gimme Shelter yet much better than God’s Not Dead. The unnecessary and ironically bland imagery of heaven may pull you out of the film, but the talented cast and enough genuinely heartfelt moments are enough for me to say if you wanted to show this for a Sunday school class, renting it once it’s out on video wouldn’t hurt.
I give Heaven Is for Real a C+ (★★½).