Movie review: Faith, skepticism in ‘Heaven Is for Real’

04/17/2014 12:00 AM

04/20/2014 8:09 PM

Greg Kinnear, an actor perpetually on the verge of tears, is the perfect choice to play Todd Burpo, a preacher whose son tells him he’s been to heaven. And “Heaven Is for Real,” based on a book by a Nebraska pastor about his then-4-year-old son’s near-death experience and account of a visit to heaven, is a sometimes touching and comforting account of this family’s story.

It’s a child’s tale, and the childlike faith of the kid (Connor Corum), who almost died of a burst appendix, is underscored at every turn in this Randall Wallace (“Braveheart”) drama. Kinnear does his best to suggest a guy overwhelmed by the thought that the words he says every Sunday have a real-world relevance that his kid has witnessed, first-hand.

What’s novel about “Heaven” is the weight the film gives to alternative explanations for Colton’s miraculous recovery (his dad’s congregation prayed en masse for him) and what he says he saw “up there” in the clouds, sitting on the lap of Jesus, with singing angels who giggle when he makes a request:

“Can we do ‘We Will Rock You’ ”?

Is what little Colton’s saying merely “an echo” of the house and environment he grew up in? Is this his elaborate fairy tale re-creation of the sort of heaven kids are taught in Sunday school? Or does he have too many details, too many descriptions of dead family members he’s never met for this to be not “for real”?

Pastor Todd buys in, somewhat reluctantly, the film suggests. Mom (Kelly Reilly from “Flight”) is a harder sell. The academic whom Todd visits dismisses him, or makes him feel dismissed. And his own congregation (Margo Martindale, Thomas Haden Church) has doubts, too.

That’s a tricky turn that this film never quite makes. A story of assorted health, personal and financial crises facing this wholesome small-town family, “Heaven” lacks real villains. Even the nosy reporter who questions the kid is compassionate. So when people turn on the preacher for obsessing over his kid’s story, it feels unnatural, halfhearted and abrupt. The debates have no weight to them.

The best faith-based films are embracing, and “Heaven Is for Real” aims for that. It’s too slow, the plastic smiles of the little boy are kind of creepy (his sister-character reacts to him that way) and the literal representation of heaven feels comically childlike. Jesus looks just like Kenny Loggins, circa 1983.

But it can, on occasion, touch you. Reilly has a wrenching moment or two and Kinnear is as sincere as a recent convert in the lead role. His Todd Burpo is an informal, caring preacher in the modern mold, a guy who doesn’t wear a robe or a tie, but who sells his sermons with conviction.

This spring’s indie faith-based hit “God’s Not Dead” may have a similarly assertive/defiant title, but it lacks the tolerance of this movie, trafficking in angry, anti-intellectual caricatures of academics and journalists.

“Heaven Is for Real” accentuates the positive, the simple faith ingrained in a kid who learns “Jesus Loves the Little Children, All the Little Children of the World” fresh out of the cradle. Whatever the film’s other failings, it presents an incredible story with a credulous, approachable innocence that is to be envied, whether or not you believe a word of it.


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