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Heaven is for Real
DIRECTOR: Randall Wallace
CAST: Greg Kinnear, Kelly Reilly, Connor Corum, Jacob Vargas
RUNNING TIME: 100 minutes
In Heaven Is For Real, Colton Burpo (Corum), the angelic 4-year-old son of a Nebraska pastor, undergoes emergency surgery and while under anaesthesia experiences a series of visions, including watching his own operation, observing the prayers of his anguished parents and meeting Jesus.
At first, Todd Burpo (Kinnear) listens to Colton’s stories with the amused forbearance of a mildly sceptical but proud parent: he and his wife, Sonja (Reilly), chalk up Colton’s detailed visions to the stories and hymns he’s been steeped in all his life.
But when Colton mentions encountering people he never met or knew existed, Todd becomes convinced his son really has glimpsed the afterlife, a revelation that sends the preacher on a journey that will ultimately threaten his parish and his family.
Viewers expecting Heaven Is For Real to be an anodyne allegory of unconditional faith are in for something edgier, and that turns out to be a good thing.
Thanks to Kinnear, what could have been merely a feel-good exercise in Eschatology Lite instead becomes a wholesome but also surprisingly tough-minded portrait of a man wrestling with his faith.
Gentle, well-meaning and suffused with the easy-going tolerance that largely characterises the small Midwestern community where the Burpos live, Heaven Is For Real undoubtedly supports Colton’s contention that he visited heaven – where, he tells his father, Jesus rides a multicoloured horse and bands of singing angels apparently don’t take requests. But the movie doesn’t succumb entirely to credulity.
Most of the film has to do with the painful questions Todd, his wife and his parishioners grapple with as they contemplate Colton’s startling disclosures, first trying to fit them into scriptural understanding and then, when that fails, their own personal theology – or something in between.
(There’s no question this is a Christian film: one of its producers is megachurch leader TD Jakes.)
Sonja joins Jennifer Connelly’s character in Noah as the wife of a man increasingly consumed by holy visions, only to lose track of what he cares about most.
Todd is introduced as a nice guy whose conversational sermons appeal to his small congregation. When he appears to be more interested in preaching the Gospel of the Son of Todd than the Son of God, parishioners begin to recoil: In one testily effective church meeting, a woman played by the magnificent Margo Martindale confronts Todd with the germane observation that the concepts of heaven and hell have been used for centuries to frighten and manipulate people.
This push-and-pull represents the best of Heaven Is For Real, which also has some humorous moments, many coming from Thomas Haden Church as the town banker who can always be relied on for a deadpan remark or two.
Director Wallace sets up enough events leading to the youngster’s experience that alternative explanations are readily available.
Once or twice he succumbs to facile logic and on-the-nose sentimentality, especially in Colton’s childish cotton-cloud recollections. But then again, he is a child, and the kitschy staging reinforces the essential tensions that propel the film.
Presumably in keeping with Burpo’s book, Wallace ends the film tying Colton’s visions to those of another young person halfway around the world, whose paintings of Jesus eerily coincided with the American toddler’s impressions.
That may be an intriguing turn of events, but the postscript unfortunately detracts from the most powerful sequence in Heaven Is For Real, wherein Todd finally seems to process Colton’s journey into something personally crucial and spiritually transformative.
In that moving climactic scene, the preoccupations that have consumed him seem utterly beside the point compared with how in God’s name we can love our neighbours as ourselves. It may not involve singing angels or multicoloured ponies, but it’s still a question for the ages. – Washington Post
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