Film Review: Heaven Is for Real

A small-town minister experiences a crisis of faith in this adaptation of a best-selling book.

Adapted from the best-selling nonfiction book, Heaven Is for Real examines the impact on a small-town minister when his young son has a near-death experience. The book's fan base should turn out in force for the movie, whose release is timed to Easter season. They will find a plot more serious and troubling than the typical Christian outing.

Set in the idyllic small town of Imperial, Nebraska, Heaven Is for Real starts with Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear) hard at work at his day job, doing repairs for a local business. A volunteer fireman and coach at the high school, he is also the pastor at the Crossroads Wesleyan Church and the father of two young children.

The movie takes pains to show Todd and his wife Sonja (Kelly Reilly) as normal and level-headed, if deeply in debt. Similarly, their children Cassie (Lane Styles) and Colton (Connor Corum) are typical kids who love pop music and get into fights.

Todd's congregation appreciates his supportive, easygoing sermons, even when medical problems limit his appearances at the church. Then four-year-old Colton almost dies during an operation for a ruptured appendix. As he recovers, Colton reveals that he visited heaven. When his son adds details that cannot be explained rationally, Todd begins to question his own beliefs.

Todd brings these doubts to his sermons, upsetting church board members Nancy Rawling (Margo Martindale) and Jay Wilkins (Thomas Haden Church). He and Colton also talk to the press, stirring up more controversy. With his job on the line, Todd must find a way to deal with what his son experienced.

The careful screenplay by director Randall Wallace and co-writer Christopher Parker takes the same approach as the book, building its non-sectarian case for heaven with almost no dogma or theology. You don't have to be a believer to follow the story, although it helps to put up with its more sugary passages.

Since there is little or no religious underpinning to Heaven Is for Real, on a basic level it doesn't matter what Colton actually experienced. It's a teaching point, a metaphor, a way to find answers both in and out of science. That makes the movie accessible to viewers who would otherwise find its premise unbelievable. And while falling well short of rational proof, the story does raise intriguing questions about the fundamental nature of faith, questions that have puzzled mankind for centuries.

As Todd reasons, adults instruct children to believe the stories they are told in Sunday School, but become alarmed if they take them seriously. By extension, Todd realizes that his own faith has fallen short of what he preaches. That's pretty strong medicine for a feel-good Christian movie. Also setting Heaven Is for Real apart from recent religious titles like Son of God and God's Not Dead is the level of expertise and professionalism on display. Wallace wrote Braveheart and directed movies like We Were Soldiers. Cinematographer Dean Semler won an Oscar for Dances with Wolves. Kinnear and the effortlessly entertaining Haden Church are much bigger stars than usually found in this genre.

Unfortunately, almost everyone here has chosen to play it safe. Heaven Is for Real doesn't raise any hackles, but it doesn't really test its audience either. Wallace adopts a middle-of-the-road style, punctuating the script's big moments with bursts of light and angelic choirs. Only the reliable Margo Martindale hits the target as a bitter, angry mother who discovers how painful faith can be.

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