A young boy claims to have glimpsed the afterlife during a near-death experience, and director Randall Wallace keeps his adaptation of the pop-religion best-seller on an even keel
Despite its hopelessly silly title, the handsome and humanistic “Heaven Is for Real” is poised to become the biggest Christian crossover hit since the “Chronicles of Narnia” franchise. That’s because director Randall Wallace (“Secretariat,” “We Were Soldiers”) offers a soft sell on Reverend Todd Burpo‘s truth – that his then three-year-old son Colton met Jesus during a life-saving operation, as related in his best-selling non-fiction book.
Wallace smartly leaves room for skeptics of Burpo’s account to maintain their doubt; what matters most is that audiences understand the film character’s reasons for choosing to believe his son’s vision/dream/delirium.
Slim and beautiful, the Burpos are a Nebraskan family straight out of Hollywood central casting: Greg Kinnear has 14 years on Kelly Reilly, his on-screen wife; the brunette daughters are now blond; and the family lives in a mansion on the prairie despite endless talk of debt. (An early scene explains that their house is cheap because it rumbles when the trains go by.)
Todd (Kinnear) is a good man, but not a pious one. The first time we see him at his pastor’s duties, praying for a dying man in a hospital, he’s in a football sweatshirt and nylon trackpants.
Life after death seems like a necessary comfort when our bodies, and thus our physical existence, are so fragile. Colton (Connor Corum) witnesses his father suffer a kidney-stone attack and a spiral fracture in his leg before nearly succumbing himself to a ruptured appendix.
While knocked out on surgical anesthesia and a 104-degree fever, Colton meets Jesus and a few giggling angels. (Uncharitably, they refuse the little boy’s request to sing his favorite song, Queen’s “We Will Rock You.”) The boy also meets a few deceased relatives during his divine sojourn, including his miscarried sister, whom he supposedly never knew about.
The seven seconds of heaven that we see are tasteful and oblique. Disappointingly, Jesus’ rainbow-colored horse, described in the book, never makes a cameo.
As he recovers from his surgery, Colton speaks matter-of-factly of his revelation. Marble-mouthed and wobbly on his feet on a good day, he’s far from precocious — in other words, he’s too innocent to just make things up.
Colton’s sister Cassie (Lane Styles), however, notices something different about him — and it scares her. “Dad, can I sleep in your room tonight?” she pleads. Ominous music accompanies Colton, and Corum’s big blue eyes suddenly take on a spooky tinge. It’s to the film’s great credit that it has enough of a sense of humor to play Colton’s supernatural experiences for couple of scary-movie laughs.
When news of the little boy’s otherworldly visit breaks in their small town, though, and Todd confesses that he’s tempted to believe the veracity of his son’s visions, the family becomes a target of suspicion, envy, and mild ostracism. The church that prayed for Colton’s survival deposes Todd of his pastorship, and Cassie is taunted at school.
Todd is eventually convinced of the truth of his son’s meeting with Jesus, of course — his real-life counterpart’s book on the subject counts as a spoiler. But his hard-fought decision to believe is, if not at entirely rational, at least emotionally compelling. In a weak moment, he admits to his wife that his judgment on this matter is impaired; he desperately wants Colton’s vision to be a sign from God.
Todd’s faith inspires him to reach out to his congregation, in particular his friend Nancy (Margo Martindale), who’s devastated by the fact that Todd’s son survived while hers did not. In the film’s most grown-up moment, Kinnear and Martindale share a deeply moving conversation in a cemetery that proves that these characters are complex, damaged adults, rather than gullible naïfs.
“Heaven Is for Real” provides enough circumstantial evidence in favor of Colton’s story that those who wish to follow Todd’s leap of faith may do so. But for this atheist critic, the film is most successful in its ambiguities.
Its recounting is even-handed enough that incredulous viewers might justifiably accuse Todd of wishful thinking and of sharing his son’s hallucination to help pay the family’s significant medical bills; at the same time, those same skeptics can walk out of theaters thinking that Todd was roused to improve himself, his congregation, and his community after his brush with personal catastrophe.