“Heaven Is for Real” is a smooth, easygoing film that will please its target audience, even if it doesn’t quite reach the heavenly heights of other inspirational efforts in the faith-based genre.
After a near death experience, young Colton Burpo (an adorable Connor Corum) insists that he visited heaven and matter-of-factly shares vivid details with anyone who asks.
This revelation is especially challenging for his parents, Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear) and his wife, Sonja (Kelly Reilly, “Flight”), the pastor and choir director of the town church, who aren’t sure if Colton just had a very pleasant dream or if his encounter actually did happen.
Kinnear and Reilly have believable chemistry and in various cute segments, the Burpos — including Lane Styles as daughter, Cassie — are portrayed as perfectly normal folks. That’s undeniably important as any mainstream audience members watching would find them wholly un-relatable if the Burpos were the traditional religious caricatures shown in most secular films.
The film is based on the Burpo family’s actual 2003 experience, which Todd Burpo co-wrote in a New York Times bestseller, “Heaven Is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back.”
The biggest hurdle which director/co-writer Randall Wallace (“Secretariat”) and co-writer Chris Parker (“Battle of the Year”) don’t necessarily fully clear are the more conventional elements moviegoers expect even in a faith-based film.
There’s no real antagonist, obstacle or especially significant challenge to the film beyond Todd trying to make sense of Colton’s vision through sermons, talks with Sonja or on his own quiet time. Margo Martindale (“August: Osage County”) and Thomas Haden Church (“Spider-Man 3”) have the more complex roles of family friends to the Burpos who are also somewhat concerned Todd could drive away congregation members with sermons on the afterlife or worse, make the church a laughingstock. Their characters likewise are portrayed sensibly and aren’t over the top villainous characters the Burpos have to overcome for the happy ending.
And possibly because Corum is so earnest, it’s hard to see why Todd has such trouble having faith that what Colton saw is genuine. Since that’s the heart of the movie, it’s a bit puzzling that Wallace and Parker get sidetracked with other subplots like Todd’s recovery after a softball injury and the family’s financial struggles. With the film’s brisk 99 min. run time, Colton’s experience almost seems like the main story arc in a weekly family drama yet not important enough to be the focus of an entire episode and makes the film’s conclusion feel abrupt and very anti-climactic.
While the story is somewhat deficient, Kinnear is solid and conveys the weight of a man trying to make sense of the unexplainable. Kinnear rarely gets to headline films, but again shows his versatility and immense likeability. Reilly provides yet another strong, understated supporting performance while Corum should be flooded with offers with his ease of line delivery and genuine cuteness.
If “Heaven Is for Real” doesn’t exactly stoke an inspirational fire for believers, it’s still a pleasant viewing experience and in this case, it may be all that families really need, but for more demanding viewers it may not pack a sufficient spiritual punch.
Rating: 6.5 out of 10