‘Heaven Is for Real’ is sincere and mostly touching

By Rich Heldenfels
Beacon Journal popular culture writer

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Connor Corum in TriStar Pictures' Heaven Is For Real. (Allen Fraser/Sony Pictures)

I believe in God, and I believe in heaven. For the most part I believe the message of Heaven Is for Real, that good people — even if they have suffered during their lives — will find peace and joy in the afterlife. But I am not so imaginative as to know what form that peace and heaven take, and attempts to present it too literally press too hard against some of my beliefs.

So, for most of its running time, Heaven Is for Real was a serious, sincere and emotionally effective treatment of what people believe and need. Based on the book of the same name by Nebraska pastor Todd Burpo, it tells the story of what happened in the Burpo family after their young son Colton emerged from a difficult surgery with descriptions of what and whom he had seen in heaven.

The film, co-written and directed by Randall Wallace, draws on many of the incidents in Burpo’s book. It is not as dogmatic as the book; the movie Colton (played by Connor Corum of Macedonia) is far more gentle than the book Colton, who at one point insists that for a man to get into heaven, “he had to have Jesus in his heart!” (The italics and exclamation point are both in the book.) In the book as well, Colton’s descriptions are questioned a bit but not strongly objected to; the latter part of the movie finds some members of Burpo’s congregation made uncomfortable by Burpo’s discussions of what Colton saw — with problems caused because of that.

Of course, such personal conflict not only adds dramatic weight to the movie, it asks questions that skeptical moviegoers may want to raise. Directed and co-written by Randall Wallace, the movie wants all kinds of audiences to feel a connection to the Burpos’ lives, not just those who arrive with religious beliefs firmly in place. Sure, some of the skeptics in the film see their way to acceptance. No problem here. As I said, I believe in heaven, and the film is quite moving in dealing with that.

Heaven Is for Real in general tells its story well. It is well paced and includes bits of humor amid the more intense moments.

One of the knocks on many faith-based movies of recent years is that the acting is not great; Heaven Is for Real is a cut above on that score. Greg Kinnear is a fine, thoughtful Todd Burpo, and Kelly Reilly — soon to be seen in the TV series Black Box — ably plays Todd’s wife, Sonja. Among the supporting players are Thomas Haden Church and Margo Martindale, who can sell just about anything onscreen.

Then there is Connor Corum, on whose small shoulders the movie must firmly rest. In his first acting role, Connor displays no artificiality, no suggestion that he is pretending to be Colton. He comfortably inhabits the character, making the audience accept — at minimum — that Colton absolutely believes that he saw what he describes. It’s a splendid piece of work, and one that demands that Kinnear in particular rise to the occasion.

All that being said, if there is one reservation I have about Heaven Is for Real, it is one that carries over from the book. Colton saw Jesus in heaven. But what did the Jesus he saw look like? Heaven Is for Real says that what Colton saw was the same as what young artist and writer Akiane has portrayed based on her own spiritual visions — specifically, a painting she made at the age of 8. It goes against historical scholarship to reveal a decidedly westernized Jesus, more than a little resembling the singer Kenny Loggins.

Where some may take comfort in such an image, in the context of the movie (and the book) it felt like a too literal attempt to show something that had already been established without a precisely drawn picture. Any specific rendering was bound to start arguments with people who see Jesus very differently.

Yes, the movie also presents a specific heaven resembling a lovely park, but it’s still general enough that the portrait did not push my buttons the way the Jesus painting did. After all, Heaven Is for Real had offered a powerful movie without adding one more try to bring more unbelievers into its fold.

Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including the HeldenFiles Online blog, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or rheldenfels@thebeaconjournal.com.

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