Movie Review | Heaven Is For Real
Director: Randall Wallace
Producer: Sue Baden-Powell
Screenwriter: Chris Parker
Release date: 16 April, 2014
Stars: Greg Kinnear, Kelly Reilly
Based on a true story. These five words leapt from the screen and hit me squarely in the eyeball as the “Heaven Is For Real” title sequence commenced. I knew instantly that this movie was entirely and unashamedly presented from a Christian perspective and the story of Colton Burpo, the four year old boy who went to heaven on an operating table after bursting his appendix, would not be called into question. Animated and entranced at this audacious opening, I sat forward in my seat, eager to discover what further surprises this movie had in store.
The story progresses from the point of view of Todd Burpo, Colton’s father; the pastor of a small church in Nebraska, as he tries to balance his son’s experience alongside his own theology. The juggling act continues as his parishioners, disgruntled and suspicious, add their questions, doubts and fears into the turbulent mix in his mind. The pressure piles on Burpo as financial difficulty combines with social pressure, until he is at last forced to risk both money and prestige in support of his son and his belief that heaven really, truly is for real.
I was particularly impressed by the performances, most notably Greg Kinnear (Todd Burpo) and Connor Corum (Colton Burpo), a wonderfully natural child actor. The relationship between them was both genuine and unforced and I had no trouble accepting that they were father and son. This relationship provided the emotional heart of the movie and grounded the story in the everyday normality of family life, which, in turn, made the narrative relatable, despite it’s extraordinary content. The characters were all three-dimensional, well-rounded constructs, which added to the movie’s charm.
My critique of the movie is, surprisingly, inextricably linked with the undeniably Christian perspective that I was initially so excited by. Todd Burpo, the main protagonist of the movie, is the character with whom the audience identify. Although he has moments of doubt throughout the course of the plot, they are relatively insignificant; fundamentally, he always believes his son. This is unfortunate because it leaves little room for character development. Todd does not travel from unbelief to faith and, consequently, the audience do not make this journey either. This is not a problem for those already watching from a faith perspective (like myself), but for those for whom this is not the case, the movie does little to engage them or help them progress on a journey towards belief. This is a movie made by Christians, for Christians and its message is tailored to those already convinced that heaven is for real. It could have been so much more!
In addition, the focus of the movie on the small town and its inhabitants, actually went some way to normalising these incredible events. The magic and mystery of the trip to heaven was lost in the mundane setting, which, rather than providing a stark contrast to the supernatural sequences, drained them of wonder and intensity.
Whilst I commend this movie for its ambition and its uncompromising message, I feel it still has some way to go in bridging the gap between secular spectators and its religious subject matter. Ultimately, Christian filmmaking still has much work to do if it intends to attract a wider audience.