Heaven Is for Real works in mysterious ways for a faith-based movie. It actually leaves room for doubt, in a genre founded on Christian absolutes. Tears aren't jerked; Bibles aren't thumped. Believing gets easier.
There's a purity of purpose to Randall Wallace's film, based on Todd Burpo's book about his son Colton, who claimed at age 4 to have met Jesus in heaven during a near-death experience. As a pastor, Todd might be expected to blindly embrace that claim, and as a movie Heaven Is for Real could've done the same.
Wallace believes but not relentlessly so, giving voice to doubters – several inside Todd's church – before they're predictably silenced. Heaven Is for Real isn't a radical shift in religious cinema but it's unique in anticipating and serving on-the-fence viewers, a crossover tactic that can make dollars and evangelical sense. The movie modestly succeeds as fact or fantasy, take your theological pick.
Greg Kinnear is a nice choice to play Todd, an affable neighbor in a picture-perfect Nebraska town. Besides ministering, Todd installs garage doors, coaches wrestling, volunteers as a firefighter and dotes on his wife Sonja (Kelly Reilly), daughter Cassie (Lane Styles) and Colton, played by Connor Corum, a remarkably natural newcomer. Theirs is a heartland existence Rockwell might paint, until a series of medical issues puts Todd out of action and bills begin piling up.
Then Colton falls gravely ill, undergoing an emergency appendectomy and nearly dying. An example of the film's understated piety is a touching montage of a telephone prayer circle developing. The child recovers and begins casually describing angels that sang to him, which Todd and Sonja chalk up to imagination except Colton also knows what they were doing while he was on the operating table. He says he met Jesus, and later the stillborn sister his parents never mentioned, and a grandfather the boy never knew.
Word spreads of these visions, the media gets involved and church leaders (Margo Martindale, Thomas Haden Church) don't want a "circus" invading. They wonder if Todd's job is compromised, what he'll preach. Heaven Is for Real firmly, smartly sets apart its spiritual agenda from zealotry typically avoided by mainstream audiences.
Wallace might be wiser to tone down the ethereal flourishes of Colton's recollections of heaven, complete with billowing clouds and shining angels trilling hallelujahs. Heaven looks like the cleanest city park ever, where nobody's old or needs glasses. It's the cliche that could be impressed upon a child, especially a minister's child, who accompanies his father to hospital deathbed visits. Could that, in addition to imagination and anesthesia, explain Colton's visions? At least this movie cracks that door.
Casting also adds to the movie's persuasiveness, in a backhand way. We've seen these actors doing very un-Christian things in previous roles: sexual obsession for Kinnear (Auto Focus) and Church (Sideways), Reilly's junkie mom in Flight, and Martindale's Justified crime boss. Not only are they better actors than usual for the genre but watching them sell this material so well, taking it seriously as actors not just believers, lends the message credibility. On Earth, as it is in Hollywood.
Steve Persall can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall on Twitter.