In “Heaven Is For Real,” Colton Burpo, the angelic 4-year-old son of a Nebraska pastor, undergoes emergency surgery and while under anesthesia experiences a series of visions, including watching his own operation, observing the prayers of his anguished parents and meeting Jesus.
At first, Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear) listens to Colton’s stories with the amused forbearance of a mildly skeptical but proud parent: He and his wife, Sonja (Kelly 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 even knew existed, Todd becomes convinced that 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,” adapted from Todd Burpo’s best-selling memoir by the director Randall Wallace, to be an anodyne allegory of reassurance and unconditional faith are in for something a little bit edgier, and that turns out to be a good thing. Thanks to a sensitive performance from Kinnear, as well as from a terrific cast of supporting actors, 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 easygoing tolerance that largely characterizes 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 in the movie, Jesus rides a multicolored horse and bands of singing angels apparently don’t take requests (at least for “We Will Rock You”). 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 the implications of 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, and unnamed. “Why can’t it just be a mystery?” Todd’s wife asks at one point, echoing the very thoughts of audience members who may not accept Colton’s words as literally true but don’t reflexively dismiss them, either. (There’s no question, however, that “Heaven Is For Real” is a Christian movie: One of its producers is megachurch leader T.D. Jakes.)
As a sympathetic, morally centered voice of reason, Sonja Burpo 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. In “Heaven Is For Real,” Todd Burpo is introduced as a nice guy, a modest garage-door installer whose conversational sermons appeal to his small, middle-of-the-road evangelical 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. (Martindale is also at the center of one of the film’s most wrenching and pivotal scenes.)
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. Wallace – who uses a bright blue palette throughout the film, the better to reflect the preternaturally blue eyes of Connor Corum, who plays Colton – sets up enough events leading to the youngster’s experience that alternative explanations are readily available. Once or twice the director 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 serves to reinforce the essential tensions that propel the film.
With no less a steadfast atheist than Barbara Ehrenreich recently publishing a memoir of her own youthful encounter with the Great Unfathomable, and neurosurgeon Eben Alexander declaring in Newsweek magazine that he, too, took a cosmic journey to the beyond, “Heaven Is For Real” is well timed to coincide with collective speculation on transcendence in its varied, most inexplicable forms. 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 neighbors as ourselves. It may not involve singing angels or multicolored ponies, but it’s still a question for the ages.