DESPITE ITS silly title, the handsome and humanistic "Heaven Is for Real" is poised to become the biggest Christian crossover hit since the "Chronicles of Narnia" franchise.
That's because director Randall Wallace ("Secretariat," "We Were Soldiers") offers a soft sell on the Rev. Todd Burpo's truth - that his then 3-year-old son Colton met Jesus during a lifesaving operation, as related in his best-selling nonfiction book.
Wallace smartly leaves room for skeptics of Burpo's account to maintain their doubt; what matters most is that audiences understand the film character's reasons for choosing to believe his son's vision/dream/delirium.
Slim and beautiful, the Burpos are a Nebraskan family straight out of Hollywood central casting: Greg Kinnear has 14 years on Kelly Reilly, his on-screen wife; the brunette daughters are now blond; and the family lives in a mansion on the prairie despite endless talk of debt.
Todd (Kinnear) is a good man, but not a pious one. The first time we see him at his pastor's duties, praying for a dying man in a hospital, he's in a football sweatshirt and nylon track pants.
Colton (Connor Corum) witnesses his father suffer a kidney-stone attack and a spiral fracture in his leg before nearly succumbing himself to a ruptured appendix. While knocked out on surgical anesthesia and a 104-degree fever, Colton meets Jesus and a few giggling angels.
As he recovers from his surgery, Colton speaks matter-of-factly of his revelation. Marble-mouthed and wobbly on his feet on a good day, he's far from precocious - in other words, he's too innocent to just make things up.
It's to the film's great credit that it has enough of a sense of humor to play Colton's supernatural experiences for couple of scary-movie laughs.
When news of the little boy's otherworldly visit breaks in their small town, though, and Todd confesses that he's tempted to believe the veracity of his son's visions, the family becomes a target of suspicion, envy and mild ostracism. Todd is eventually convinced of the truth of his son's meeting with Jesus, of course - his real-life counterpart's book on the subject counts as a spoiler.
But his hard-fought decision to believe is, if not entirely rational, at least emotionally compelling. In a weak moment, he admits to his wife that his judgment on this matter is impaired: He desperately wants Colton's vision to be a sign from God.
"Heaven Is for Real" provides enough circumstantial evidence in favor of Colton's story that those who wish to follow Todd's leap of faith may do so. But for this atheist critic, the film is most successful in its ambiguities.