Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear) is a minister and preacher in a small rural town in Nebraska. Times a tough, and his income from a small salary provided by the church is not enough to make ends meet for him, his wife Sonja (Kelly Reilly) and his two small children, Colton (Connor Corum) and Cassie (Lane Styles). To supplement his income, he installs garage doors. Even that does not make enough of a difference, since his customers all too often don’t pay him in cash but in things like rolls of carpet in a rural barter system that just passes lack and need from neighbor to neighbor. The Burpos can’t pay the bills.
Then their four-year-old Colton suddenly gets very sick and he undergoes emergency surgery for a ruptured appendix. Mixed with visions of the distraught parents in the waiting room and chapel of the hospital, we see the surgeons and nurses in the operating room responding frantically to the loss of blood pressure. “We’re losing him.” His mom calls a friend from church and asks her to call everyone to pray for Colton.
Presumably Colton recovers and the next thing we see is he is bouncing around healthy and happy. The prayers just have been successful in saving the little boy – or convincing God to keep him on Earth for a while longer.
Soon the parents notice Colton making strange statements and observation. He describes how he had an out-of-body experience and how he went on a short visit to heaven. There he had experiences that the parents can’t explain, and, of course, he met Jesus and sat on his lap.
The Burpos and the entire community around him try to come to grips with this “miracle” and things get difficult. Is Burpo just making all this up to get his 15 minutes on national TV?
There have been a number of “faith-based films” or “cinevangelism projects” lately, like Noah most recently. These movies generally “preach to the choir” – pun intended. Just like I enjoyed watching the HBO miniseries John Adams after I read the book of the same name by McCullough, since the film provided a vivid backdrop of costumes, architecture and landscapes to the knowledge of history I had gained from reading the book, Christians may enjoy watching movies like Heaven is for Real to provide them with imagery and confirmation of their faith and beliefs.
The movie is filled with clichés one would expect in a movie about heaven. Angels appear as brightly lit humanoids with large wings. Scenes are filled with blue sky and bright clouds and ethereal music. Jesus is a Middle-Eastern-looking man with a tunic and a beard, but short hair and green and blue eyes, according to Colton. The entire movie keeps reinforcing those trite stereotypes we have all developed after reading too many books about the after-life and heaven over the years.
The acting is mostly wooden. Colton is a young boy, and I am sure it’s hard to get a young boy to act well and convincingly. His face, his language and his mannerisms never seem real. He is coached by a good director, and it shows in every scene. Kinnear does a good job portraying Todd Burpo.
There really isn’t any plot or good story. Like many “true stories,” this one just meanders around a basic idea, but in the end it just fizzles out. There is no resolution.
For the faith-based genre, however, I give the film some credit for not just being a white-washed commercial for Christianity. It does not proselytize. It shows that regular people in rural America have real problems, like paying the bills, making ends meet, finding a purpose and reason in life, and – yes – keeping a church and faith community going and growing. Heaven may be for real, but it’s not solving real-world problems. Faith alone does not do that, and the answers are not obvious.
Rating: * 1/2 (out of 4)