A movie like “Heaven is for Real” requires two different reviews, one for believers/fans of the 1.5 million-volume best-selling book, one for those who are unfamiliar with the book and whose views about faith and heaven and proof may differ from the evangelical beliefs of the Wesleyan pastor who wrote the book about his son. The first group will find what they are looking for. Anyone else is unlikely to feel enlightened or inspired.
Nebraska clergyman Todd Burpo co-wrote Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back, the story of his not-yet-four-year-old son Colton, who told his parents about a visit to heaven when he “lifted up” during abdominal surgery. On that visit, he said, he sat on Jesus’ lap and spoke to two family members. He described the bright colors of heaven and Jesus’ horse.
Fans of the book and those who share Colton’s ideas about heaven will find the movie skillfully made by co-writer/director Randall Wallace (“Secretariat,” “Braveheart”) and very true to the story that Burpo tells. Others may find what is very much a four-year-old’s concept (he asked the angels to sing him Queen’s “We Will Rock You”) limited and cloying. This is very much a self-congratulatory closed loop wish fulfillment idea of heaven, where everyone is young and healthy and we are reunited with everyone we lost (apparently everyone of our faith, anyway), even those who died before birth.
Greg Kinnear is likeable as always as a father coping with the stress of many different commitments and pressures. He has a devoted wife, Sonja (Kelly Reilly of “Flight”) and two darling children. But his garage door business is suffering in the depressed economy. He is also a volunteer fireman and a high school coach as well as pastor of the Crossroads Wesleyan Church. He has had some injuries and health problems.
And then what they think is stomach flu turns out to be Colton’s burst appendix and he is rushed to the operating room. While Sonja calls church members to ask for their prayers, Todd goes to the hospital’s chapel and cries out to God over the unfairness of putting his little boy at risk.
Colton (Connor Corum, a cute kid with a nice natural presence but no actor) recovers. After he is home, he matter-0f-factly begins to tell his parents about his experiences in heaven. At first, they are dismissive, but then Todd and, later Sonja are convinced, based on details he shares about people and events he could not have known. Todd allows a reporter to write about Colton. Members of the church are concerned, but they, too, become convinced.
Those who are already believers, especially fans of the book who want to see the story on screen, are likely to be very satisfied with this well-produced and sincere portrayal of the Burpo’s story, and it is for them that the movie gets a B grade. Those from other faith traditions, seekers, and skeptics are unlikely to be convinced, however. For many people, the “proof” from Colton’s stories is easily explained away or the vision he describes is substantially different from their understanding of God and the afterlife. The one consistent reaction from viewers is that both believers in this specific idea and those who are not will both find their views re-affirmed by this movie.
Parents should know that this movie includes a seriously ill child and discussions of miscarriage and loss. There is some marital sexual teasing.
Family discussion: Ask family members for their ideas of what heaven is like and research different faith traditions and their views of heaven.
If you like this, try: the book by Todd Burpo and Diane Keaton’s documentary Heaven