Greg Kinnear, an actor perpetually on the verge of tears, is perfect as a preacher whose son says he has been to heaven. And Heaven is for Real, based on a book by a Nebraska pastor about his then-4-year-old son's near-death experience, is a sometimes-touching account of a family's story.
It's a child's tale, and the faith of the kid (Connor Corum) who almost died of a burst appendix is underscored at every turn in this Randall Wallace (Braveheart) drama. Kinnear, as Todd Burpo, does his best to suggest a guy overwhelmed by the thought that the words he says every Sunday have a real-world relevance that his kid has witnessed firsthand.
What's novel about Heaven is the weight given to alternative explanations for Colton's recovery, and what he says he saw "up there," sitting on Jesus' lap, with singing angels who giggle when he asks, "Can we do 'We Will Rock You'?"
Is what Colton's saying merely "an echo" of the environment he grew up in? Or does he have too many details, too many descriptions of dead family members he has never met, for this to be not "for real"? Dad buys in, somewhat reluctantly; Mom (Kelly Reilly) is a harder sell. The academic whom Dad visits dismisses him. And his congregation has doubts, too.
That's a tricky turn this film never quite makes. A story with assorted health, personal, and financial crises facing this wholesome, small-town family, Heaven lacks real villains. Even the nosy reporter who questions the kid is compassionate. So when people turn on the preacher for obsessing over his kid's story, it feels unnatural, halfhearted, and abrupt. The debates have no weight to them.
The best faith-based films are embracing, and Heaven is for Real aims for that. But it's too slow, the plastic smiles of the little boy are kind of creepy (his sister reacts to him that way), and the literal representation of heaven feels comically childlike. Jesus looks just like Kenny Loggins circa 1983.
But it can, on occasion, touch you. Reilly has a wrenching moment or two, and Kinnear is as sincere as a recent convert in the lead role. His Todd Burpo is an informal, caring preacher in the modern mold who doesn't wear a robe or a tie but who sells his sermons with conviction. This spring's indie faith-based hit God's Not Dead may have a similarly assertive/defiant title, but it lacks the tolerance and sensitivity of this movie, trafficking in angry, anti-intellectual caricatures of academics and journalists.
Heaven is for Real accentuates the positive, the simple faith ingrained in a kid who learns "Jesus loves the little children, all the little children of the world" fresh out of the cradle. Whatever its failings, it presents an incredible story with an approachable innocence that is to be envied, whether or not you believe a word of it.
Heaven is for Real ** (out of four stars)
Directed by Randall Wallace. With Greg Kinnear, Kelly Reilly, Thomas Haden Church, Connor Corum, Margo Martindale. Distributed by Sony/Tristar.
Running time: 1 hour, 40 mins.
Parent's guide: PG (thematic material including some medical situations)
Playing at: area theaters.EndText