God is certainly having the best month ever! at the box office. First there was God’s Not Dead, then Noah (though not sure how God felt about that one), and now just in time for Easter comes the film adaptation of the bestselling book Heaven Is for Real, which brings us the true story of four-year-old Colton Burpo, who claims to have taken a trip to Heaven during emergency appendectomy surgery.
There is certainly an audience for this type of film, as I learned upon walking into a packed screening on the opening night. It’s also worth mentioning that I saw this movie with the most perfect example of its intended viewer: my super religious mother (when I was a child and Jehovah’s Witnesses would come to the door, she’d invite them in for a “friendly” debate about why her beliefs were correct and theirs were wrong. Eventually they stopped coming to our house.) Needless to say, she loved this movie.
The Burpos live in a small Nebraska town called Imperial. It’s an idyllic, quiet place with a lot of open fields where everyone knows each other. The Burpo family fit in nicely. They are good people, well-liked by the community, and they’re all just adorable. In addition to being pastor of the local church, Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear) is also a volunteer fireman, a high school wrestling coach, and of course, a wonderful husband and father. Doting mom Sonja (Kelly Reilly) holds weekly choir practice to the delight of the neighborhood dogs. The kids, Colton and Cassie (Connor Corum and Lane Styles), couldn’t be cuter and have drawings of churches on their bedroom walls. The family sings together on road trips (mostly songs about Jesus, but sometimes also “We Will Rock You,” which makes sense because Freddie Mercury is God). They are all just precious I tell ya, almost too precious. Of course everything is accompanied by schmaltzy music.
One day Colton comes down with what is first assumed to be a stomach bug, but turns out to be a burst appendix. He comes very close to death but survives the surgery. Days later, he begins to reveal some strange stuff he saw during his operation to Todd. But it’s not strange to Colton, who matter-of-factly tells his dad he went to heaven, sat on Jesus’ lap, and met his deceased grandfather, who was a young man rather than the elderly one he was when he passed on . “Everyone is young in Heaven,” Colton explains.
“Sign us up for Christianity!”
This is all a lot for someone to believe, and the one person that would be expected to more than others would certainly be a pastor, right? Not so much in this case. Todd struggles in trying to make sense of it all and where Colton’s story fits in with what he preaches every Sunday. Suddenly he must face his own doubts, which he never realized he had. But sweet little Colton’s stories are pretty convincing, bringing up people and facts he would never have known otherwise.
see saw dead people.”
The news makes most of the townsfolk pretty uncomfortable too. Again, you’d expect these churchgoers to be ecstatic about this supposed confirmation of something they have believed their entire lives, but nope. The Burpos are mocked and alienated by many. Even their closest friends, Jay (Thomas Haden Church –at whom my mom exclaimed loudly: “That’s Lowell from Wings!”) and Nancy (Margo Martindale) express uneasiness. Once the local media gets word, the church board, which includes Jay and Nancy, grow concerned about the church becoming a sideshow and Todd’s job as pastor is threatened. To make matters worse, the Burpos are in deep financial trouble.
If only there was a way to make some money!
This movie is spared from playing out like one of those Kirk Cameron-produced straight-to-DVD faith-based family films by respectable direction (Randall Wallace), a (for the most part) well-written screenplay (Chris Parker and Wallace), and earnest performances by a talented cast. Greg Kinnear is outstanding. I’d say this film is worth watching for him alone, but it would be unfair to exclude the equally wonderful Margo Martindale. There is a moving scene near the end of the film between the two of them that’s flat-out beautiful. The rest of the cast are no slouches either. Even the child actors are good. Of course, there’s no shortage of obligatory “awww” close-ups of Connor Corum.
The second half of the film was a lot more thought-provoking than I expected it to be. It brings up and then answers (or at least attempts to) many questions that would naturally arise from the type of situation being explored and feels like an honest representation of the drama that occurred in the real life version of events. It surprisingly never comes off preachy. A little pandering, yes, but not preachy. In a lesser film, it would be a mean group of non-believers doing the doubting and mocking, which there likely were, but what’s interesting here is that the film focuses on the fact that the very congregation themselves are the ones that are causing the friction.
Before all the drama kicks in though, there is that first half hour of the film, which painstakingly takes its time establishing the life of the Burpos. Have I mentioned the fields? And the tractors? And all of Todd’s jobs? And the car rides? And the choir practices? And the church sermons? It’s all just a bit too much and drags on way too long before anything happens. And then something does, though not the inciting incident, and then everything is all rainbows again. Until something else happens, but once more, not that. This happens a few times, building up the feeling of dread and then going back to yet another cutesy scene. When Colton is finally in the hospital, I found myself praying along with the entire town of Imperial, but for the movie to be over soon.
The audience not only gets to hear Colton reveal his experiences, but also can see his flashbacks. And they are exactly as you’d expect. Clouds, singing winged angels, Jesus in the white robe, you know, every generic Heaven trope. Colton does mention one unique thing though: a rainbow horse that Jesus rides on, which I was damn excited to see because that sounds pretty awesome. But we never get to see the rainbow horse.
Had the film spared us the hokey depictions of Heaven and let Colton’s testimonials stand as the sole “proof” of his experience, it would have made for a far more compelling watch, especially paired with Kinnear’s terrific performance of someone forced to face his own doubts about the very thing he’s devoted his life to convincing others to believe. Instead, seeing Colton’s Heaven in all its fluffy glory actually lessens the overall experience and takes the viewer out of the movie (not in a good way).
I was originally going to assign a beer for the ridiculous title, but I’m going to give that a pass since it’s the title of the book (and I appreciate that they didn’t use the full title: Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire) but (unlike Jesus) I can’t forgive the conclusion of the final church scene that had me rolling my eyes so far back into my head that I almost lost a contact lens.
Heaven Is for Real will no doubt win over the audience it was made for (the credits were met with applause at my screening and my mom is still talking about how much she loved it), reaffirming their beliefs and giving them a warm and fuzzy feeling going into the Easter holiday. For everyone else, it’s a good-intentioned, occasionally thought-provoking- though heavy on the sap- little movie with a few worthy-of-a-watch performances. If you go to church every week , check it out. If not, wait for a rainy Netflix day.
Take a Drink: every time you see a Spiderman poster or action figure.
Take a Drink: at every long-shot of a truck driving down a road surrounded by endless fields.
Take a Drink: every time there is singing.
Chug: through every Heaven scene.
Take a Drink: every time Todd and Sonja get a little (PG-rated) frisky.
Take a Drink: whenever the sister gets a line of dialogue.
Take a Drink: every time Todd or Sonja discuss their bills and money troubles.
Do a Shot: whenever the cynic in you is reminded of how much they are now profiting off their books(s) and this movie.
Fun Fact: There are also few scenes of a Lithuanian girl who had a similar experience to Colton’s and paints pictures of Jesus. When Colton sees one, he confirms it is the same face of the man he met up in Heaven. The little girl’s name is Akiane Kramarik and here is one of her paintings in case you want to see what Jesus looks like.
(I had to!)