Superheroes, demonic possessions and zombies are commonplace at the multiplex, but movies about authentic religious miracles are so rare you tend to want to give them the benefit of the doubt, or rather, the benefit of the faith. Even among religious movies, Heaven is For Real is something unusual – a contemporary miracle story, based on real-life events. Adapted from the non-fiction bestseller of the same name by Todd Burpo (with Lynn Vincent, co-writer of Sarah Palin’s autobiography, Going Rogue), the movie is no religious fringe event. It’s from a major studio (Sony), with an Oscar-nominated star (Greg Kinnear), adapted for the screen by Braveheart screenwriter Randall Wallace.
This is the wistful and sincere Kinnear of Little Miss Sunshine and Flash of Genius (not the sleazy Kinnear of his recent TV series, Rake) and he’s well-cast as Burpo, an affable Nebraska rural preacher and family man. While Todd’s folksy sermons, delivered in shirtsleeves, are enjoyed by his congregation, this is the economically beleaguered heartland America. Along with his wife, Sonja (Kelly Reilly) and son and daughter, he lives in a church-supplied home next to the railway tracks. Although Todd does everything from work as a wrestling coach, garage-door repairman and volunteer fireman, he barely makes ends meet.
The real troubles start when Todd starts running up medical expenses, breaking his leg in a community softball game and then suffering an attack of kidney stones. When his cherubic four-year-old son Colton (Connor Corum) is whisked into emergency surgery for a burst appendix, Todd is at the breaking point. While he’s having his Job-like moment of anger with God in the hospital chapel, Sonja is working the phone, busy soliciting neighbours to pray for their son. After a montage of scenes of workers and parents across the town praying for Colton, God apparently responds. He gives Colton a glimpse of heaven to bring back to the congregation in which he meets Jesus, who rides a white horse. Winged angels sing familiar hymns and Colton meets long-dead relatives.
For Todd, the experience is more traumatic than joyous. He seeks advice from a psychologist (Nancy Sorel) who offers a plausible explanation of a “near death” hallucination. Todd finds her explanation insufficient. He also begins alienating everyone with his obsession about his son’s strange experience. A church board member (Margo Martindale), who is embittered by her own soldier son’s death, wants Todd to quit the church. She finds the combination of his absenteeism and a media circus around Colton’s supposed “miracle” an embarrassment. Even Sonja becomes frustrated with Todd’s nights on the Internet searching for answers. Things get so bad she even threatens to get a job to help pay the bills.
Once Todd accepts that God’s revelation is a source of hope and strength rather than a burden, things soon fall into place. Heaven is For Real stops feeling like a drama and more like an illustrated religious pamphlet. Though the movie doesn’t spell it out, Todd’s acceptance of the miraculous also led to the book and movie deal and helped clear away his mountain of medical debt.
Taken at face value, Heaven is For Real is intended as a contemporary illustration of the passage from the gospel of Matthew, that unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Often, though, the examples of Colton’s insights are so precious, they border on creepy. When he talks of meeting a little sister with his mother’s hair colour, Sonja promptly identifies the child as an incarnation of her miscarriage, sex unknown, years before. In another scene, Colton approaches a little girl undergoing cancer treatment and beamishly declares that “No one will hurt you,” which is obviously not the same thing as saying nothing will hurt you.
While Todd, as pastor, concludes that Colton’s vision of heaven is paradise according to a four-year-old’s understanding, the movie too often seems aimed at a similar level of credulousness. In one of its more absurd moments, Colton is asked to pick the true likeness of Christ from a lineup of pictures on the Internet. He selects a portrait painted by Lithuanian-American child artist, Akiane Kramarik, who also says she has visited heaven. The painting, entitled Prince of Peace (which has been shown on Fox News, Oprah Winfrey and CNN) portrays a contemporary looking blue-eyed man with a feathered hairdo and a coiffed beard. As several commentators have noted, Kramarik’s impression of Jesus is a dead ringer for pop singer Kenny Loggins in his younger days. Miraculous, indeed.
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