OKLAHOMA CITY – The deluge of Christian films continues! After the harmless Son of God, controversial Noah, and critically panned God’s Not Dead, Heaven is For Real is trying to do what those films couldn’t – tell a Christian story that connects with unbelievers, doesn’t alienate the brethren, and garners at least a somewhat respectable critical response. Does the film succeed? I think so.
In case you aren’t familiar, Heaven is For Real is a motion-picture adaptation of the bestselling book by the same name. In the story, Pastor Todd Burpo’s son Colton suffers a ruptured appendix and has to undergo an emergency appendectomy. Everything turns out fine, but in the following days, Colton begins to reveal to his family details of an experience no one knew about – a mid-surgery trip to Heaven!
While it isn’t going to light the film industry on fire, Heaven is For Real is not just another low-budget Christian movie. On the contrary, it is a well-made, well-shot film with many positive elements including a wonderful cast, effective cinematography, and enjoyable humor.
Greg Kinnear is perfect as Todd Burpo, and Connor Corum is hilarious and endearing as Colton. (His performance in the “We Will Rock You” scene is profligately amazing.) Also notable are Thomas Hayden Church as Todd’s best friend Jay Wilkins and Margo Martindale as the church piano player.
One minor negative of the cast is Kelly Reilly as Todd’s wife Sonja. Her performance is fine, but I felt she was portrayed a little too sexually. To be fair, she seems positively Amish compared to other Hollywood femmes, but her occasional scanty attire and somewhat saucy seduction of her husband feel unnecessary and out of place.
Set in rural Nebraska, Heaven is For Real makes great use of America’s gorgeous heartland. Cornfields have never looked so good, and the clean, clear vistas are a wonderful earthy backdrop to an ethereal narrative. Regarding the ethereal, for a story about going to Heaven, there aren’t many depictions of the Great Beyond. I personally think it was a good move to avoid most of the heavenly motifs – how could anything possibly measure up to our expectations? The little that is shown is sparkling and brilliant.
Still another asset is the humor. I don’t remember many specific moments beyond the “We Will Rock You” scene, but I remember laughing several times throughout. Of course, I almost cried several times, too, so it was nice to have brevity to go with the heavy. Hey, that almost rhymed!
While HiFR has many things to enjoy, no film is perfect, and this one has some annoying weaknesses. I especially found some of the early edits and pacing poorly executed. But those things do not ruin the film because, frankly, it isn’t meant to be a technical powerhouse. People aren’t going to visit theaters for a Christian Avatar. The reason people will see Heaven is For Real is the story.
The story is what will bring people to theaters. The story is what made the book a bestseller. The story is what made pastor Todd Burpo a sought-after speaker. Whether we hear it, read it, or watch it, this will go down as one of the all-time great stories.
However, the greatest strength of the film is also its weakness. Near-death testimonies naturally inspire skepticism, and I’m sure Heaven is For Real will encounter its fair share of naysayers. Many of those skeptics will probably pass on this, and if they do, I think they’ll be missing out, for in the end, the truthfulness of the account doesn’t really matter.
Even if false, Colton’s experience serves as a simple reminder of that great question we often forget in the hustle and bustle of everyday living: what happens when we die? This kid believes Heaven is there, and if you are in a place where you’re not sure what to believe, maybe his simple testimony will be a launching pad for greater investigation.
For this reason, I highly recommend Heaven is For Real. It may change your life. Go see it.