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‘Heaven is for real’

Christian film has cheesy moments but quality acting

Photograph provided by The Mitchell Republic.

(Photograph provided by The Mitchell Republic.)

By David Seaman | Echo

I wanted to dislike “Heaven Is for Real.” In an unusually large Christian film season the reviews for films like this have not been kind. I also had doubts about the storyline, which involves a kid sitting on Jesus’ lap in Heaven—a little too schmaltzy for my tastes.

But you know what? The movie is not half bad. The acting is surprisingly good for a Christian film, and only a few parts are eye roll-worthy. We’re left with a film that presents a realistic small-town Christian family with relatable struggles.

Todd Burpo is a pastor of a small Wesleyan church in Nebraska in addition to three other jobs. He has a happy life with his wife and two children. But Burpo’s faith is tested when his son Colton undergoes emergency surgery for appendicitis. Things look bleak, and the family urges their friends to pray. Colton miraculously recovers and all seems well again.

However, Colton claims to have visited heaven during his surgery, and he has some very interesting stories to share with his father. Apparently Jesus has bluish-green eyes and a multicolored horse. His father chalks this up to an overactive imagination. Colton then reveals that he saw his miscarried sister and Burpo’s grandfather. Now Burpo is forced to confront what he really believes about God and the afterlife.

“Heaven is For Real” is good during parts. The film is visually impressive; one important scene involving Colton in a hallway is something you expect from an Oscar film, not a small Christian one. And the movie boasts above-average writing and acting.

The film doesn’t work when it visually depicts Colton’s visions. These scenes are heavy-handed, with cheesy lighting and hokey dialogue. Sometimes this spreads over to other parts of the film. I’ve noticed that many Christian movies try to have as much light streaming in as possible in certain shots. The church scenes have this, and some of the town scenes have this, but it doesn’t work. It’s distracting and unnecessary, taking away from the reality of the film.

This is what really works: Randall Wallace, Greg Kinnear and the respected cast. Wallace, who wrote the screenplay for “Braveheart,” has enough cinematic sense to focus more on the family’s reactions to Colton’s visions rather than the visions themselves. This downplays the cliched moments somewhat and gives a more personal feel.

Focusing on the family allows us to focus on Greg Kinnear’s heartfelt performance as Todd Burpo. Kinnear’s record as an Oscar-nominated actor helps greatly. Too often films like these have to rely on B-list actors or below for their star power. Kinnear gives Burpo’s struggles and questions weight. He seems real, whether he’s joking with friends or crying out to God in private. When Kinnear steps up to the pulpit, you see a pastor, not an actor. Thomas Haden Church and Kelly Reilly also complement Kinnear in their respective roles.

“Does God love my son more than he loves yours?” Burpo asks a family friend at one point. The issue of whether God favors some people over others is discussed, but it is not the main focus. Mostly the focus is directly on heaven and whether or not it exists. The film does not shy away from discussing whether Colton is making up stories. Instead it is suggested that although one may not believe in the visions, they can still provoke ideas on how we view heaven. Besides that, the film touches on themes such as how our culture depicts Jesus and angels and how we use faith as a comforting tool at times.

The film’s overemphasis on heaven comes at the cost of exploring that other place in the afterlife. The film seems to suggest all people can go to heaven if they truly love one another. Hell is not mentioned at all. In disregarding the sides of God’s judgment we are uncomfortable to talk about, the film fails to give a truly convincing argument.

I appreciated how, unlike the recent “God’s Not Dead,” “Heaven Is for Real” doesn’t seem to be pushing an agenda. It’s a film for Christians challenging what we truly believe in. Instead of attacking atheists, the film simply focuses on a normal Christian family, a small town and the struggles that result from a strange situation.

Is “Heaven Is for Real” a well-done, feel-good film with positive messages? Yes. Despite some painfully cheesy moments, it’s a solid piece of filmmaking. A nonbeliever will probably not be taken by the film. For its intended audience, however, it’s a step in the right direction.

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