Heaven is for Real is a well meaning drama about parents with a child who has a near death experience. Four-year-old son Colton suffers from an undiagnosed ruptured appendix. After father Todd Burpo takes him to the hospital, Colton claims to have visited heaven and comes back to testify about what he saw. Giving his story validity is the details of what his parents were doing while he was on the operating table in a completely separate room. He also gives other extraordinary details of past events in his parents’ lives that were heretofore unknowable to the little boy.
With one exception, the performances don’t extract much emotion from the audience. Little actor Connor Corum is a beatific little tyke with blonde hair and blue eyes. He’s certainly cute but he doesn’t quite register the personality it takes to anchor a film like this. He’s a bit of a blank slate. Much better is Greg Kinnear as his father. He perfectly embodies everything this part requires. He is likable, sensible and sympathetic. He expresses the kind of genuine excitement tempered with doubt that a real parent would have in this situation.
The biggest issue I had with this story is the Christian church’s reaction to the little boy’s message. Todd Burpo doesn’t quite know how to explain what his child has seen or knows, but at least he registers some happiness. As a pastor of Crossroads Wesleyan Church he has an audience to which he can recount his son’s visions. You’d think the members of a Christian church would embrace such news with open arms but such is not the case. Leading the opposition is Nancy Rawling as portrayed by Margo Martindale. She worries that his account will turn their parish into a circus. I had to wonder. Is that a problem? The added attention could be a wonderful jumping off point for a parish to discuss the hereafter with believers and non-believers alike. Instead the boys stories become a worrisome thorn in the side of everyone from Todd’s wife (Kelly Reilly) to his close friend (Thomas Haden Church). Only Todd Burpo, his father has the desire to explore further.
Heaven is for Real is based on the non-fiction book of the same name by Todd Burpo and best selling conservative writer Lynn Vincent. It was a true story so maybe the negative reaction that Connor’s chronicle received from the congregation at the time was what actually happened, Yet it was a #1 New York Times hit so it obviously touched a lot of hearts outside the religious world. The boy’s experiences should prompt more probing questions. He saw Jesus for goodness sakes! At least he believes he did, why aren’t people in the Church more excited? Regardless of your personal beliefs in the afterlife, it seems like this bestseller should have inspired a more uplifting tale. This could have been the seed for a galvanizing discussion that Christians, non-Christians, atheists and agnostics could have regarding the concept of heaven. The 1977 picture Oh, God! dealt with this subject in a much more innovative way. In contrast here we are nearly 4 decades later and we’re presented a fascinating story that is handled in the most utterly routine fashion. It doesn’t probe enough to inspire the faithful, the skeptics or anyone in between.