You might already be familiar with the particulars of Heaven Is for Real.
Maybe you heard the story or read the book. (It spent months at the top of the best-seller list in 2010 and 2011 and is atop the paperback nonfiction list now.) It’s the allegedly true story of a 4-year-old boy who almost died and came home from the hospital with stories about meeting Jesus in heaven. According to his pastor father, who wrote the book with the help of the conservative journalist who co-wrote Sarah Palin’s memoir, the boy, Colton Burpo (played by first-time actor Connor Corum in the film), was able to convince him that he’d really been to heaven because he was able to relate certain family stories he had never been told. In heaven, Colton said, he had met his grandfather as a young man and a sister who had died in his mother’s womb. Angels sang to him.
There are any number of ways to look at the curiosity that is the movie version. It could be dismissed as an attempt by Hollywood to co-opt the grassroots “faith-based” movie, a genre that’s sprung up in the last 15 years or so to serve a population largely neglected (or derided) by most studio projects, the salt of the earth, God-fearin’ ordinary folks who live far from our coastal cultural centers. Following this logic, we might perceive something inauthentic in this Nebraska-set (and Manitoba-shot) homily - we might take it for a cynical, condescending sop.
It might be safer to simply cast it as a business story: HIFR is the latest in 2014’s unprecedented lineup of mainstream religious films. In late February, Son of God, an abridgement of last year’s History Channel miniseries The Bible, made $25 million on its opening weekend. Darren Aronofsky’s Noah may not have lived up to expectations, but it has still made $72 million since it was released March 28. In October, Nicolas Cage will star in a reboot of Left Behind: The Movie, based on the apocalyptic Rapture novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. This Christmas we’ll see Christian Bale as Moses in Ridley Scott’s Exodus and Ben Kingsley as King Herod in Mary, Mother of Christ. And let’s not forget the underdog God’s Not Dead, which has already returned more than 10 times its reported $3 million budget.
But neither of these approaches gets at what is really interesting about the movie, which is at times ploddingly predictable and cloying, and which insists on being terribly literal about exactly what heaven looks and sounds like. (It looks like what you’d expect a 4-year-old to tell you it looks like, with a light-eyed Jesus and fantastic ponies and all the family you never knew you missed coming up to hug you and tell you stories.) No, what’s interesting about HIFR is the grounded and, at times, earthy work of Greg Kinnear and British actress Kelly Reilly (Flight) as a small-time pastor and his wife. They forma tender kernel at the center of this well-meaning but ultimately clunky movie, a credible heart about which some beautifully photographed nonsense swirls.
I have not been much of a Kinnear fan - although I’ve recognized in him a kind of useful smarminess, I’ve sometime felt him smirking at me from behind his character. Not here. As the conflicted and doubting preacher Todd Burpo, who doesn’t know what to make of his young son’s impossible stories of heaven, Kinnear projects a naturalistic, human bewilderment. If faith is the evidence of things unseen, what happens when things are made explicit?
And Reilly’s performance is remarkably sexy for a would-be family film. She’s understated dynamite as the linchpin that holds a struggling family together. She is the reason we believe in the Burpos’ troubles and why we grow to care about their efforts to hold it all together.
The movie is also careful not to paint the Christian townspeople with too broad a brush - there are degrees of piety and skepticism, but no villains rear up among Burpo’s congregation. The church board, sown with over-qualified actors Thomas Haden Church and Margo Martindale, is concerned but not reactionary. They’re made uncomfortable by the Burpos’ revelations, but they don’t go hunting witches.
A more subtle movie would not insist on showing us brilliant winged mezzo soprano angels and a Jesus who looks remarkably like Top Gun-era Kenny Loggins. I know, the image is a painting by Akiane Kramarik, a young woman and self-taught painter who also claims to have visited heaven as a girl and whose painting the real Colton apparently recognized as a good likeness. But still, a little ambiguity would have been appreciated. Especially since the film specifically suggests that Colton’s vision of Jesus might have been a personal one that incorporated certain of his parents’ features.
The trouble with the film is that it means to be inclusive, to suggest that maybe heaven is real and that maybe it consists of love and peace (there’s no mention of the other place, at least not in this movie) while remaining faithful to a naive, childish notion of eschatology. Heaven Is for Real will no doubt fill a niche, but a more satisfying movie could have been made had the filmmakers followed Iris DeMent’s advice and simply let the mystery be.
Heaven Is for Real
82 Cast: Greg Kinnear, Kelly Reilly, Connor Corum, Thomas Haden Church, Margo Martindale Director: Randall Wallace Rating: PG, for thematic material including some medical situations Running time: 100 minutes
MovieStyle, Pages 31 on 04/18/2014
Print Headline: For real