I confessed to Todd Burpo during a recent telephone interview that even I, a Church of the Brethren minister and recipient of more than my own share of major life miracles, was mightily skeptical when his New York Times bestselling book "Heaven is for Real" was first released in 2008. Burpo, who wrote the book alongside Lynn Vincent and is the real life father of Colton Burpo, expressed an understanding of that skepticism and, in fact, both in his writings and now in this cinematic adaptation his own early skepticism about his son's experience are absolutely front and center.
In case you somehow managed to avoid the story behind Heaven is for Real, it all centers around a four-year-old named Colton Burpo (newcomer Connor Corum) who nearly died during emergency surgery after his appendix burst during a family getaway in 2003. It may be important to realize that key phrase "nearly died" in the preceding sentence, because even for the most devout Christians that adds an entirely extra theological layer to the story that unfolded after Colton recovered from that very nearly tragic day. It is after Colton has returned home with his father Todd (Greg Kinnear), a Nebraska pastor), mother Sonja (Kelly Reilly of Robert Downey Jr.'s Sherlock Holmes films), and sister Cassie (Lane Styles), that Colton begins sharing the remarkable story of having visited heaven, met Jesus, seen angels, and had conversations with long-dead relatives including, most remarkably of all, a sister whom his mother had lost during a miscarriage that Colton had never known about.
Don't worry. I understand. You're either already cynical, already immediately dismissing the film, or you're one of the 8 million people who embraced the book "Heaven is for Real."
At first, Pastor Burpo himself is skeptical. After all, even for a lot of Christians the notion of "heaven" is more abstract theological concept than tangible reality. It becomes even more complex when you realize that young Colton did not die, Todd Burpo himself read through the hospital records just to confirm this fact. After wrestling with his son's continued disclosures, which the real life Pastor Burpo likened to a boy's perception of heaven, Burpo reached the uncomfortable conclusion that his son truly, truly believed that he'd gone to heaven and he was able to reveal things, including rather complex theological knowledge that defies even many knowledgeable believers, that it was no longer possible to simply dismiss it as the creative imaginings of a child. Much to the chagrine of even his own church, he started sharing his son's story.
The rest? Well, you pretty much know the rest.
Heaven is for Real is being distributed by TriStar Pictures, a distribution arm of Sony Pictures that has lately been a strong voice for family film and faith-based film with a strong potential for reaching a wider audience. The film is directed by Randall Wallace, writer of Braveheart and director of We Were Soldiers and Secretariat, and Burpo himself expressed comfort with the way Hollywood has handled the story largely because those involved in bringing the film to life are for the most part Christians themselves who were passionate about treating the material well.
For the most part, everyone succeeds.
Burpo himself expressed hope that the film's appeal would cross over to include the spiritually curious and non-believers including, perhaps, those who'd been wounded by religious experiences. That said, there's little doubt that the finished product will appeal most strongly to Christians and to those who found themselves captivated by four-year-old Colton, now a teenager who continues to speak out on the subjects in the book and film and who is reported to be just as bold and faithful as he was as a four-year-old. The film isn't, somewhat surprisingly, actually preachy but does deal openly and honestly with faith, Christianity, the experience of attending church, and the wounds that we all too often hide from one another.
Heaven is for Real benefits greatly from the presence of Greg Kinnear as Todd Burpo. Kinnear hasn't had a major studio lead since 2008's under-appreciated Flash of Genius, but his work here should remind Hollywood that he's still a force to be reckoned with. Kinnear projects a likable and warm presence that makes his humor and heart feel real along with the spiritual crisis that he endures. As the pastor's wife, Kelly Reilly radiates a warmth and sincerity that helps keep the film from ever becoming maudlin or taking itself too seriously. I couldn't help but think as I was watching the closing credits roll by that this was one of the few faith-based films where the married couple actually felt like a married couple without having to resort to the usual Hollywood behaviors.
While I haven't met the real life Colton Burpo and didn't have the privilege of talking to him on the phone, it's hard not to believe that newcomer Connor Corum hasn't come awfully close to capturing the young man's precocious yet inspired curiosity and conviction even as a four-year-old. Corum, at times, was so adorably matter-of-fact that you practically expected him to take over the pulpit. Thomas Haden Church and Margo Martindale also shine in supporting roles.
In remaining consistent with the tone of the book, it should be noted that Heaven is for Real is truly a PG-rated family film. While the cast performs more than ably, the film's script occasionally rings a bit hollow and Wallace's attempt at recreating the actual heaven "scene" is awkward and cheesy in a film that for the most part breathes simplicity and sincerity.
But, seriously. How many films do you know that have actually pulled off the whole heaven thing?
It was admirable that the film openly depicted the Burpo family's financial struggles, due largely to multiple family health issues, at the time that all of this occurred, but I found myself disappointed that the script never really addressed that fact once the story started to go public and it became apparent that there would be some financial rewards. In leaving it open-ended, it remains quite possible to interpret the entire thing as a money grab when, if one seriously looks at the timing of everything, doesn't completely make sense.
2014 is proving to be the year that faith-based cinema is breaking out of its credible indie vibe and sweeping into wide release mode. God's Not Dead has already far surpassed its original expectations, while Heaven is for Real comes out this month and Mom's Night Out arrives in theaters in May. There are more films on the horizon and, of course, we also know about Hollywood's controversial decision to tackle biblical topics and stories in a non-faith based format such as with Noah and upcoming films like Left Behind starring Nicolas Cage and Exodus starring Christian Bale.
It's doubt that fans of the book "Heaven is for Real" will be quite as satisfied with this cinematic adaptation of it, mostly because telling the story visually takes away the vivid imagery that one gets while reading the words on the page. While Wallace tries admirably, he's simply no match for a convicted four-year-old little boy telling what has become, at least for over 8 million readers, one of the greatest stories ever told (at least by a four-year-old).
Heaven is for Real opens in theaters nationwide on April 16.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic