The parents at the heart of Heaven Is for Real fights, flirts and struggles to pay the bills on time.
In short, Todd and Sonja Burpo are as normal as any on-screen couple. They just happen to make the Church a large part of their lives.
The hook of the film, a tale based on true events, is that the couple’s child believes he had a near-death experience and saw Heaven. The real treat is watching a spiritual couple handle the matter with grace, love and acceptance.
Those qualities won’t be enough, one suspects, for critics who will be aggravated by the story’s overt spirituality. And a third act moment involving a special person the boy says he saw in Heaven will send some scribes racing to type “propaganda” into their reviews. Truth is, it’s the most beautiful, fragile moment in a film filled with gentle triumphs.
The Burpos (Greg Kinnear, Kelly Reilly) are leading an ordinary life when their young son Colton (Connor Corum) becomes sick. The doctors misdiagnosis his illness, and his condition worsens. For a while, it appears this adorable boy won’t survive.
Colton bounces back and the family resumes its everyday activities. Soon, the lad starts telling his father about a trip to heaven he took during his near-death experience. Todd is a man of faith and a pastor, yet he doesn’t instinctively believe his son. He’s also well aware of how the public will view a boy claiming to have seen Jesus and His heavenly stomping grounds.
Can Todd reconcile his faith with his belief in his son’s visions?
Kinnear is outstanding as the torn father, the audience’s entry into the complicated feelings the story engenders. On an emotional level wants to believe what his son has to say. Yet Todd understands the pressures to conform and the power of a child’s imagination. Even Burpo’s closest friends (Margo Martindale, Thomas Haden Church) aren’t sure Colton’s vision should be shared with the congregation.
Director Randall Wallace (Secretariat, We Were Soldiers) remains a sublime visual storyteller, and even those who tsk-tsk Heaven’s essentials will embrace the beauty of the presentation.
The film is unabashedly faithful, but it’s more than just a spiritual reassurance. It’s a chance to witness a culture rarely depicted on screen. We often see film characters in church, or praying, but it’s uncommon for church activities to be so integral to their existence without playing directly into plot points.
Even better is how the Burpos are presented. Todd can be a hothead. He’s brash at times, and his wife doesn’t put up with it. For all those reasons the Burpos are a singular screen couple.
A few notes in Heaven ring false, echoing the less graceful Christian movies that preceded it. The “Heaven” that Colton sees is certainly a visual letdown given Wallace’s knack for imagery. It’s probably impossible to evoke Heaven in a way that pleases all movie goers, but what’s seen here feels like a missed opportunity all the same.
Heaven Is for Real wears its faith on its title, but even movie goers who don’t go to church every week will discover a drama of consequence and grace.