Starring: Greg Kinnear, Kelly Reilly, Thomas Haden Church
Director: Randall Wallace
Screenplay: Randall Wallace, Chris Parker
Drama, Rated: PG
Running Time: 99 minutes
Release Date: April 16, 2014
Burpo: Single, P-PP Moral, Pro (Classic Lone Hero)
Board: System, P-N Moral, Ant (Organization Fallen Villain)
Scott, I’m in seventh heaven over this week’s film.
Heaven can wait, Greg. Let’s get on with the review.
Our story opens on Pastor Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear) who is working odd jobs trying to make enough income to take care of his family. His income as the pastor to a small flock in Imperial, Nebraska is not covering their expenses. He lives a simple life filled with softball games, friends, and his family consisting of his wife Sonja (Kelly Reilly) and two small children including four-year-old Colton (Connor Corum). Things are going pretty well when something dreadful happens. It’s any parent’s worst nightmare.
Colton has a ruptured appendix and has emergency surgery performed on him. He survives, but it was a close call. Maybe a bit too close. In the weeks and months that follow the surgery, Colton begins revealing memories of visiting heaven while he was unconscious. At first, Todd has trouble coming to grips with these recollections, and then when word gets out the entire congregation becomes stirred up.
The young man who plays Colton is just adorable as the four-year-old who reflects the innocence of youth. There is a scene where Colton is visiting a sick man in the hospital and Colton sees a child suffering from chemotherapy treatments. He walks over to the child and holds her hand and reassures her that nobody’s going to hurt her.
Scott, this movie is based upon the real events documented in the book by the same name. The subtitle of the book is A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back. The fact, however, is that this is the story of Todd Burpo’s experiences and trials after revealing his son’s visions to the world. This makes Burpo the hero of the story. Greg Kinnear does a good job of making Burpo look like an everyman with the world on his shoulders.
Greg, I enjoyed the concept of this movie, as I’m fascinated by near-death occurrences and all the common experiences that people worldwide have shared when they’ve come close to dying or have died and come back. I read the book and found it to be a powerful account of a young boy’s claim that he visited heaven. I say ‘powerful’ because if you believe the father’s account, there are three compelling pieces of evidence supporting the boy’s story: (1) the boy’s knowledge of his unborn sister, (2) the boy’s knowledge of the grandfather he never met, and (3) the boy’s confirmation of the image of Jesus as portrayed by a Lithuanian girl who also had a near-death experience.
But the movie-makers decided that this story alone wasn’t powerful enough to carry the movie. So they decided to make the father the hero and to manufacture a good deal of anguish in the poor man. He’s depicted as a hothead who kicks furniture and who struggles with the idea that his son has met Jesus. None of this happens in the book, and for good reason – it’s a silly notion for the father, a Christian pastor, to disbelieve his son’s story that heaven exists. The movie also fabricates a terrible crisis in the church over the veracity and meaning of the boy’s story. These embellishments rang false for me.
I didn’t read the book and you’ve pretty much summed up my problems with the story. It wasn’t about the boy, it was about the father. This tack follows a typical Christian pattern wherein the hero of the story (Pastor Burpo) reveals his belief in miracles and the faithful (despite their beliefs) reject him. This creates a martyr of the pastor and he must face ridicule and the wrath of his followers. But through his own faith and tenacity he convinces the un-faithful to follow and believe. It is a story that seems familiar to me from reading the Bible.
There really are no villains in this story, but there are oppositional forces that our hero, Todd, encounters. There is a woman on the church board who wants to replace Todd. There is a psychotherapist who preaches a scientific explanation to Todd when he instead needs spiritual guidance. There are also his own inner demons and difficult circumstances, including dire family finances and numerous personal health setbacks.
Again, many of the struggles that Todd faces do not appear in the book, which wisely centers on the sheer power of Colton’s story rather than on reactions to the story. So we have a movie that tells a powerful story of a visit to heaven but strangely focuses on everyone getting wigged out by the story.
I’d have to differ with you there, Scott. The congregation of Burpo’s church are the villains. Or should I say “opposition”. There is no evil intent here. But they create the hardship that Burpo must work against. Truly, if there were no oppositional force in the movie, there would be little story.
I think we’ve seen this story before. Do you remember the classic film Oh, God? In that film John Denver plays a man who talks to God and the entire world including family and friends turn against him. It’s only his faith that sees him through the challenge.
There are a couple of classic Christian film tropes in store for the viewer. Burpo makes a trip to a college professor who is an expert in out of body experiences. She is a non-believer and has recently lost her husband to cancer and is bitter and hates God for it. We saw this same character played to the extreme in God’s Not Dead.
Heaven is For Real is an unconventional movie that puts all its emotional eggs in a single spiritual basket, namely, the “afterlife” experience of a young boy that seems to defy belief. The movie makes the unfortunate decision to showcase the father’s turbulent journey rather than the child’s, and the result is a film that doesn’t ring true to me. There are good performances by the entire cast, and as you note, Greg, Connor Corum is adorable as the young Colton. But I cannot give this movie more than 2 Reels out of 5.
Greg Kinnear does a fine job in his role as Todd, but the hero journey lacks both heft and believability. I found Todd to be one of the least spiritual people I’ve seen in the movies, and yet he is a Christian pastor. Toward the end, he and his wife finally see the light, but why it takes 90 minutes to see such a bright light is beyond me. I can only give Todd 2 Heroes out of 5.
While I wouldn’t call any of the characters villains per se, there were oppositional forces that force Todd to squirm, to suffer, and to change. One could argue that this movie is a nice story of a family that prevails over serious financial, health, and spiritual setbacks. Still, some of these obstacles, such as the congregation that freaks out, seem forced and fabricated. For that reason, I can only give this film 2 Villains out of 5.
Scott, you pretty much read my mind. Heaven is for Real is a movie that preaches to the choir. If you’re a believer you’ll believe. If you’re a doubting Thomas, you won’t be convinced. I give the film 2 out of 5 Reels.
The hero is a simple confection of a good man in a difficult situation. Other films have dealt with this topic in a more convincing fashion with a more humble and sympathetic hero. I give Burpo just 2 out of 5 Heroes.
And the congregation as the villains were predictable and flat. They rate just 2 Villains out of 5. Heaven is for Real won’t get many revisits.