Heaven is for Real (2014)

Review by Iris Hanlin.

I’m not a fan of Christian movies.  There, I said it.  I really just don’t like them… normally.  In the past few months, however, I’ve been pleased with the influx of truly well done Christian films.  First, Gimme Shelter, then, God’s Not Dead, and last night, I was given the opportunity to attend a screening of Heaven is for Real before its release to the public, courtesy of Ave Maria Radio.

“Is heaven a hope, or as real as the earth and sky?”  That is the question that opens Heaven is for Real, directed by Randall Wallace, and based on the true story of Colton Burpo, the insanely adorable 4-year-old son of a Todd Burpo, a pastor/fireman/wrestling coach from small-town Nebraska.  Colton nearly died during an emergency surgery from a ruptured appendix, and some time after his recovery, began to share bits and pieces of his trip to heaven in his near-death experience.

From the opening of the film we are treated to a wonderful mixture of faith, hilarity, and a strong dose of reality to go along with it.  Todd (Greg Kinnear) is the leader of Crossroads Wesleyan Church, of which his wife, Sonja (Kelly Reilly), leads the choir.  She stays at home with the kids, Cassie (Lane Styles) and Colton (Connor Corum), while they struggle to make ends meet as Todd’s salary as pastor fails to redeem their expenses.

After Todd breaks a leg from sliding into third, and the onset of kidney stones in the middle of a sermon (the latter of which is both genuinely severe and still entirely comical), Sonja decides the Burpo family needs a weekend away from Chase County.  Upon their return, Cassie and Colton catch what seems to be the flu, but for Colton, the symptoms persist, and they rush to the medical center, only to realize Colton’s appendix had been ruptured for days.  Commence the agony only a parent could know, waiting to know if their child would live or die, fighting to understand in their own ways.

“Mom was in one room, and you were in another room yelling at God,” says the innocent Colton, staring into his father with those piercing blue eyes, and that is exactly what had happened.  And over the next few months and years, Colton bewildered his parents over and again, revealing parts of his heavenly experience and confirming the faith of everyone around him.

The parents Burpo have an understandable amount of disbelief regarding their son’s story, considering the beautiful and wild imaginations of most 4-year-olds.  Plus, “heaven and hell are just concepts created to frighten people,” according to Nancy Rawling (Margo Martindale), a family friend and Church member struggling to see the point and purpose of her military son’s death, whom we are lead to believe perished in battle.  Plenty of sleepless nights ensue for Todd.  “I want to believe him, but everything he says is impossible!” he cries to Sonja, in an attempt to understand the remarkable thing that happened to his son.

My favorite aspect of Heaven is for Real is just how real this film is, especially in the relationship between Todd and Sonja.  Yes, there are a few arguments, and hostility, but there is also the beauty that blossoms in a relationship founded in Christ, and that is open to His will (albeit at times difficult to accept), and the new life He may give.  There are some allusions to sexuality, but it is presented in a modest fashion and solely within that relationship, both the procreative dimension of marital sexuality and the union that expresses and deepens the love between the two are affirmed.

The movie also seems to bring our own humanity into the equation...most of us wonder where we'll end up after our lives on this earth, in the mean time trying to make the best of it, and struggling to make sense of the unexpected, inexplicable happenings therein.

My only complaint about Heaven is for Real is the portrayal of Jesus.  Maybe it’s just the fact that I will never be satisfied with another Christ after Jim Caviezel in The Passion of the Christ, but this one didn’t do it for me in his perfectly starched, white robe and luxuriously impeccable wavy brown hair.  (No offense, Mike Mohrhardt.  Your hair is great, but not for Jesus.)

I applaud the creators of this film.  The cast was aesthetically pleasing, with much talent between them and a very natural dialogue which, I thought, made the film even better.  The sets and scenery were masterful and welcoming, and I equally congratulate the compilers of the soundtrack.

I appreciate films like Heaven is for Real.  Realistic, fun, approachable, with a strong story line, highlighting both the struggles and joys of this remarkable child’s remarkable story. Two and a half tiaras.