Editor's note: This review is cross-posted at JohnHanlonReviews.com
There are few people who know pain as heart-wrenching as a parent who believes that he or she could be losing a child. In the new film Heaven is for Real, the parents of Colton Burpo (Connor Corum) feel that pain.
After a series of troubling events, that couple face that pain as they watch and wait to see if their son Colton will survive after his appendix ruptures and he’s brought into the hospital for an operation. In the weeks prior, Colton’s father Todd (Greg Kinnear) — a minister in the local Church— had faced several health crises of his own. He fractured his leg during a softball game. He faced down at least seven kidney stones. During those periods, he was in more physical pain than he believed he could bear but none of that agony pales in comparison to what he feels sitting with his wife Sonja (Kelly Reilly) in the hospital room waiting to see if his son will survive.
“We have good days and bad days and we seldom know [at the beginning of each] which is which,” he says—an idea that pervades this entire story as Colton’s family struggles through both types both before and after the operation.
Colton ultimately survives his hospitalization and when he returns home, he speaks out about his experiences on the operating table. He believes he visited heaven—where he says he met Jesus and listened to the angels sing. Slowly but surely, the youngster publicly reveals details about his out-of-body experience as the people in Todd’s church begin to question their faith and their minister.
Co-writer/director Randall Wallace presents this story—based on the nonfiction book Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy's Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back— from a surprisingly cynical perspective. Wallace isn’t cynical himself about the story but all of the characters here—save for the innocent Colton—have massive doubts about Colton’s story. Instead of being driven forward in his faith, it’s Todd himself who questions his religion more after Colton’s experience. Did Colton really see heaven, he wonders, especially because the doctors inform him that Colton never actually died on the operating table.
If he wasn’t dead, how could he have seen the afterlife?
In the past, Wallace—as a screenwriter— has presented battles onscreen in films like We Were Soldiers, Pearl Harbor, and Braveheart—the latter of which earned him an Oscar nomination. He also has directed uplifting features such as the horse-racing drama, Secretariat. Here, he seemingly combines the pain of battle (in this case, a spiritual battle rather than a physical one) with the idealism of a movie like Secretariat. When people who have faith in Colton’s story, that faith is renewed. But when people have reasonable doubts about its validity, they find themselves questioning the spiritual ground they stand on.
It’s here that Wallace succeeds in making a feature that can appeal to believers and non-believers alike. The journey to faith is never presented as a clear or an obvious one. There are plenty of obstacles that stand in the way of believing Colton’s story, and Kinnear shows in his character a man who wants to believe but is overwhelmed by doubt and indecision.
Aided by a cast of characters who question Colton themselves (including Thomas Haden Church and Margo Martindale), Heaven is for Real isn’t as straightforward as its title suggests, and it’s all the better for it.
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