For a movie that tries to provide all the answers, Heaven Is for Real doesn’t even ask the right questions. While exploring potentially provocative topics of faith and religious conviction, this heavy-handed adaptation of the autobiographical novel by rural Nebraska pastor Todd Burpo winds up as another cinematic example of preaching to the choir.
As the film opens, Todd (Greg Kinnear) is as average as they come – a pastor and volunteer firefighter who lives a happy life with his wife (Kelly Reilly) and two children, blemished only by financial difficulties. The family is thrown into turmoil when their youngest son, Colton (Connor Corum) becomes suddenly ill and nearly dies at the hospital. When the relieved family takes the youngster home, he begins recalling a near-death experience that includes details about the family’s history that he couldn’t have known. Convinced that he visited heaven before returning to Earth, Colton claims he encountered Christ and other biblical figures, which confounds his pastor father whose faith is shaken because he isn’t sure what to believe, and neither is his congregation.
As directed with a sentimental emphasis by Randall Wallace (Secretariat), the film is innocent enough at first, with its focus on Colton’s cuteness and its portrayal of the family’s working-class bonds within the community. It’s a classic example of an ordinary family facing extraordinary circumstances. However, the earnest if not sanctimonious screenplay makes the critical mistake of trying to prove the statement in its title, perhaps as a method of pandering, which misses the point. It spends less time probing the family’s struggle to believe one another, particularly Todd’s faith in his son’s outrageous claims, or the parishioners challenging their own preconceived notions.
One key choice is the film’s visual depiction of Colton’s visions of heaven, instead of allowing them to remain unseen. That’s a reflection of the lack of subtlety that might alienate a wider audience outside of the target demographic. None of this is the fault of the children, either the true-life inspiration for the story or the expressive performance of wide-eyed newcomer Corum. Likewise, Kinnear conveys a convincing down-home charm as a man forced to reconsider his beliefs. While fans of the book might relish its crowd-pleasing tendencies, Heaven Is for Real doesn’t offer much substance for outsiders or skeptics.