“Heaven is for Real” is a sweet, touching film, and the rare PG-rated family offering that is not animated or filled with cute animals. Based on the popular book of the same name, it recounts a harrowing event for the real-life Burpo family in 2003 when 4-year-old Colton was rushed into emergency surgery for a ruptured appendix.
Doctors at the Nebraska hospital were able to save his life, but while he was on the operating table, Colton had a near-death experience. In the post-surgery months that followed, he told his father about visiting heaven, seeing angels and Jesus, and provided some startling details about lost relatives.
Colton’s dad, Todd, turned the experience into a book, written with Lynn Vincent, that became a huge bestseller in 2010 and is still riding high. The film version, starring Greg Kinnear and Kelly Reilly as Todd and his wife Sonja, hits theaters today (April 16).
The film’s initial declaration is clear: Todd Burpo is the True Blue Midwestern Everyman. Not only is he the pastor at a church in Imperial, Neb., but he installs electric garage door systems, is a volunteer firefighter, plays softball in a league with his wife and buddies and coaches wrestling at the local high school.
Like most of us, the Burpos are in debt, trying to balance their wavering finances with raising two kids. Unlike most of us, they live in idyllic looking farm country, surrounded by the kind of landscapes Ray Kinsella might want to carve a baseball diamond out of for a “Field of Dreams.”
Once Todd decides to share Colton’s tale with his congregation and the media, his life becomes complicated. The faithful (including Margot Martindale and Thomas Haden Church) don’t show much faith. They are a little uneasy with literal descriptions of the hereafter, particularly coming from a 4-year-old.
Todd has his own misgivings and seeks out a psychology professor (Nancy Sorel) who explains that near-death experiences often result in visions of the afterlife. Christians see Jesus, she tells him, Jews see Moses and Muslims see Mohammed. Todd is still not satisfied and embarks on his own journey, trying to understand it all. He has preached about heaven for years, but what does he really believe?
The ever-likable Kinnear delivers a winning performance as the man in search of answers. It is a quiet, understated turn about a pastor with a quiet, understated faith. But the revelation (if you will) is Connor Corum as Colton. The 6-year-old newcomer reportedly beat out thousands of young boys across the country for the role, and you can see why.
Corum is adorable, but even more important, he has a natural style that makes Colton completely believable. As we’ve all seen, so many children in films are too forced, too cutesy, too earnest, and they often detract from the story. Corum is just the opposite. His matter-of-fact reports about heaven are delivered with an I-know-what-I-saw sincerity. He’s the best thing in the film.
Director Randall Wallace, who was Oscar-nominated for his “Braveheart” screenplay and has directed several films, including “We Were Soldiers” (also with Kinnear) and “Secretariat,” did not set out to preach. Despite its premise, “Heaven is for Real” is not an overly religious film. Wallace does not go out of his way to bang us over the head with scripture or doctrine.
His film stumbles at times, when it veers into some cheesy TV-movie moments (and now we will be mad at God!), but it’s not because he’s trying to oversell a Big Message.
It is actually a simple, straightforward tale, with a terrific 6-year-old playing a 4-year-old who says that one day he went to heaven.