MESSAGE IN THE MOVIES
Photo By Sony Pictures
Directed by Randall Wallace. Starring Greg Kinnear, Kelly Reilly.
Whether or not you believe that 4-year-old Colton Burpo had visions of going to heaven while on the operating table for a burst appendix, you’d better believe that his story was a publishing phenomenon. The 2010 book Heaven Is For Real topped the bestseller list for months and has sold over one million copies in eBook format alone. It’s not surprising that a filmed version has now been made.
What is surprising is how good the movie is. Co-written and directed by Randall Wallace (the writer of Braveheart and director of We Were Soldiers and Secretariat) and beautifully shot by cinematographer Dean Semler (Dances with Wolves), the film also features an exceptional A-list cast including Greg Kinnear as Colton’s father, Pastor Todd Burpo; and Margo Martindale and Thomas Haden Church as two members of the Wesleyan church where he pastors.
Although the film starts out in predictable Christian film squeaky-clean mode (with Pastor Todd leading his church family while also installing garage doors, coaching wrestling, and serving with the local volunteer fire department), it inhabits virtually the same Midwestern American world as 1989’s Field of Dreams in which decent folk are trying to convince others that heaven has come to Earth in an amazingly new way.
Colton (Connor Corum) isn’t really trying to cause a stir. He just matter-of-factly shares his heavenly visions with his family and, the more questions they ask, the more incredible his answers seem to be. He remembers visiting with deceased relatives as well as Jesus Himself and brings comfort and hope to his parents.
The members of the church have some problems with these stories. One woman shares real bitterness over why Colton was allowed to see heaven and come back to tell about it, while her son died in military service, never to return again. The national celebrity associated with the near-death episode is upsetting the equilibrium of the congregation; some are suggesting that it may be time for a new pastor.
Not to worry. Pastor Todd’s critics are also his friends (that’s the way the church should be, after all) and there’s no problem that can’t be overcome with the faith of a child. There are some decent sermons in this film and a nice reference to C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia during a bedtime story. The Burpo family is likable and there is quite a bit of intended humor in their story.
I did find the overall tone of the movie to be a challenge. The film starts out quiet and gentle and never develops much tension. (For this reason, it will probably prove to be a struggle for younger children to sit through, despite an adorable and persuasive performance by 6-year-old Connor Corum.)
You really can’t prove whether heaven exists; you just have to take it on faith. That is the modest message of this charming family film that presents one little boy’s experience of eternity. Sure, it’s simplistic, but isn’t that how grace is supposed to work?
Five halos: A low-key but entertaining film about the afterlife that has some decent theology in the mix.
One pitchfork: For some flirty innuendos shared by Pastor Todd and his wife; a past tragedy that may be hard to explain to young children.
Rev. Bruce Batchelor-Glader
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