“Heaven is for Real” is based on the true story of a 4-year-old Nebraska boy who after major surgery tells his father – a local minister – that he’s been to heaven. Although there are immediate doubts, people begin to accept the story when the youngster reveals information he only could have been given by those who died before he was born.
His tale is inspirational for some and draws the wrath of others, who call it all a fabrication. That becomes a major source of tension in the film.
This story is fodder for countless debates. What should not be overlooked is the strong story of how a family must – along with this big event – deal with the normal hardships of life.
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Director Randall Wallace shows – as he did on “Secretariat” and “We Were Soldiers” – that the strength of a movie comes from a focus on family. Even when “Heaven Is for Real” slips into theological mode, Wallace quickly pulls the attention back to how the family members deal with all that’s being thrown at them.
Too often in movies, a man of the cloth is either portrayed as being all-knowing or having fallen from grace. Greg Kinnear’s portrayal of Pastor Todd Burpo – the father of the young boy and the leader of the local church – is more human than most church leaders in film. He spends as much time worrying about the mortgage as he does preaching the gospel.
It helps that Wallace gets an equally strong performance from Kelly Reilly as Sonja, the minister’s wife. Wallace doesn’t sacrifice the paternal and maternal parts of the couple’s lives in the name of their deep spiritual beliefs. Their financial struggles are very reflective of what’s going on across the country, and that makes the movie more accessible to those who don’t care as much about the spiritual aspects.
Wallace also manages to get a surprisingly good performance from 6-year-old Connor Corum. There’s a very natural feel to the way the youngster acts in scenes – especially when working with Kinnear – that helps fortify the family story.
The film is not without flaws. The biggest mistake in the script by Wallace and Chris Parker is the decision to show on film what the youngster says he saw in heaven. No matter how reverent the approach, the depiction of angels comes across as a cheesy special effect. And the appearance by Jesus looks like the worst moment from a church Easter production.
More clarification would have helped, especially when it comes to how the boy’s announcement shakes the foundation of those who should have a rock-solid faith. All of this chips away at the solid family foundation on which Wallace had built his movie.
These aren’t mortal sins. Wallace has created a movie that has a message that goes beyond preaching to the choir. That’s when the work is at its best.