Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear) is the beloved pastor of Imperial, Nebraska's Crossroads Wesleyan Church, but he's having a hard time making ends meet even with his garage door business. He's shaken to the core when he almost loses his youngest, 4 year-old Colton (Connor Corum), to a burst appendix, but the congregations' prayers appear to pull him through. Then things take another, controversial turn when Colton tells his dad "Heaven Is for Real."
Cowriter (with Chris Parker, " Battle of the Year")/director Randall Wallace ("We Were Soldiers," "Secretariat") adapts Todd Burpo's book with an admirable allowance for skepticism and Kinnear, Kelly Reilly ("Flight") and Margo Martindale ("August: Osage County") give the material their full talents, but this film should only find acceptance with full on believers. The tale of a little boy's Near Death Experience is corny, celebrating family values in America's Heartland with visions of Heaven and Jesus right out of a pre-schoolers Bible studies book.
The film begins with a scene of a young girl painting in a barn shot through with beams of light in what we're told is Lithuania before cutting to the expansive blue skies of Nebraska. Burpo's fixing an automatic door for a rug distributor, only to be told he's to be paid in trade. We then see the man in action at the pulpit, where he uses his wife Sonja's bedtime story of a lion, unicorn and bear to preach self sacrifice. Children's stories are this film's stock in trade.
Once Colton pulls through his surgery, he tells his dad he wants to hold the tarantula his sister Cassie held on their trip to Denver, so off the two go on a celebratory recovery trip. Afterwards, on a playground seesaw, Colton starts letting information slip. He tells his dad he saw his mom on the phone and his dad 'yelling at God' as he watched the doctors operate on him. The angels sang to him, he says, although they laughed when he asked for 'We Will Rock You.' He sat on Jesus's lap and met his great grandfather. Todd doesn't know what to think and his wife Sonja (Reilly) is even more skeptical. But when Todd shows Colton a picture of his 'Pops,' the little boy says it wasn't him as no one wears glasses in Heaven. Todd finds a picture of his ancestor as a young man. Bingo - 'that's him' Colton says. Now a believer, Todd begins to talk about his son's story, but Church Board leader Nancy Rawling (Martindale) is incensed and a local newspaper story divides the town.
Wallace uses the color blue, low angle shots and a syrupy score (Nick Glennie-Smith, "Secretariat") to invoke all things heavenly but his visualizations of Colton's 'trip' are downright cheesy, especially the blue-green eyed Jesus (Mike Mohrhardt) who looks like an 80's pop star wearing purple lace up Jellies. Colton's revelations are supposed to become more and more astonishing, but none can pass the rational explanations provided within Wallace's own film. At best, "Heaven Is for Real" provokes one to consider the way the human mind works. That little girl (Ursula Clark) in Lithuania (she's actually the child of a Lithuanian who lives in Illinois) is revealed to be Akiane Kramarik, a painting prodigy who works from 'visions' and whose painting of Jesus is picked by Colton as the truest representation of what the man looks like (see it here and disbelieve for yourself).
Kinnear really does evoke a struggling small town family man up against some pretty bad luck who believes his son is telling the truth but doesn't know what to make of it. Reilly is his equal as a wife and mother frustrated with his obsession but still hot to trot for her husband. Also strong is Martindale as a woman with her own crisis of faith - she and Kinnear repair their relationship with a candid talk in a strong scene. But few could believe the cherubic, fat cheeked Corum who toddles about radiating innocence and sees angels in the backyard bird house. The child actor isn't precocious, he appears self conscious. The film also stars Thomas Haden Church ("Sideways") as the Burpo's back slapping banker.
"Heaven Is for Real" isn't convincing, except perhaps as a look at a Church centric community. Even its crises of faith are too conflict free.
Robin did not see this film.
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