Heaven Is Best Left to the Imagination

Sweet family story inspires Heaven Is for Real, but heavenly glories are designed for reality, not film.

There’s a rich history of movies — think The Song of Bernadette, The Bishop’s Wife or It’s a Wonderful Life — that attempt to provide a glimpse of the supernatural through ordinary people’s encounters with the Divine. In an age where many seem to believe that neither heaven nor hell actually exist, Heaven Is for Real is a most welcome entry into that category of films. We brought our entire family to see it on opening weekend.

Based on the bestselling book of the same title, Heaven Is for Real tells the true life story of the Nebraskan Burpo family, led by Crossroads Wesleyan Church Pastor Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear). The Burpos resemble middle America. They live in a small town. In addition to his job as a pastor, Todd is a volunteer firefighter, he runs a garage-door installation business and plays baseball. His wife, Sonja (Kelly Reilly), heads up the church choir. The couple has one daughter and one son.

Their 3-year-old son, Colton (Connor Corum), nearly dies during emergency surgery for a burst appendix. Angry with God, Todd goes to the hospital chapel to yell at God, while Sonja phones friends to ask for prayers.

Afterwards, while on a teeter-totter with his father, Colton begins revealing details of his near-death-like experience of going to heaven, seeing angels and meeting Jesus Christ. Through their ensuing conversations, Colton shares details that he couldn’t possibly have known, such as describing what his parents were doing while he was being operated on and revealing things about family members who he didn’t meet in life but met while in heaven.

The revelations spur a kind of crisis of faith for Todd. Injuries and family-finance concerns have created family stress, and Todd isn’t sure what to make of what Colton is telling him and what it means. While supportive, Sonja is more skeptical of her son’s admissions to his father.

As word spreads about Colton’s experiences, especially via a newspaper story, townsfolk and church members begin asking questions, and Todd begins preaching about the topic at his weekly services, a practice that raises concern among the church elders.

At the film’s climax, and a telling detail of how some Protestant churches operate, the church elders give Todd a very short window of time to turn things around or they’ll replace him. Ultimately, Todd is forced to examine what it is that he believes, and he is forced to take a position before his congregation.

Unlike most faith-based films, the film doesn’t preach, but viewers are treated to at least three scenes of Todd preaching to his congregation. Strangely, aside from Todd’s outburst in the hospital chapel, we do not see him praying. This seems like an odd omission in a movie about a pastor. In the end, Todd preaches a message that few could disagree with. It’s a tidy, feel-good ending.

The film boasts an experienced director and actors. Randall Wallace of Braveheart and Secretariat directs the film. The always enjoyable Kinnear and up-and-coming Reilly (of Flight) play the Burpos. Todd’s friend, banker and church elder Jay Wilkins is portrayed by the recognizable Thomas Haden Church.

The young Colton is a precocious child actor who delivers his dialogue in a believable, matter-of-fact way. When he tells a reporter that Jesus “had markers …” and then points to his hands and feet before running back to his swing set, it’s a touching and convincing scene.

Technically, Wallace has directed a film that looks beautiful. He gives us sweeping vistas of Midwestern plains, bucolic views of small-town life and gorgeous glimpses of heaven-like clouds and blue skies.

The film, admirably, closely follows the book. It’s as if the filmmakers, knowing that the book sold eight million copies, felt they had a natural audience for the film. However, because the film sticks with the book, this is where it falls short cinematically, for the film is not a book.

The film is weak in several areas that should have been more obvious to veteran filmmakers.

First, in trying to follow the book too closely, the film’s scenes lack the necessary compelling tension to propel the film forward to a typical climax and resolution. There simply isn’t enough material here for a full-length feature film. Viewers shouldn’t expect any deep theology. Colton’s experiences and statements about heaven could easily be summed up in about 10 sentences.

Secondly, the director is heavy-handed in his use of foreshadowing, so much so that he gives too much away. When the events actually occur later, there’s very little surprise left for the viewer.

Finally, the director could have benefitted from director Alfred Hitchcock’s adage about the importance of leaving things to the imagination. The film makes the mistake of trying to convey Colton’s images of heaven, angels and Jesus. While any such portrayal is going to pale in comparison to the reality, the images in Heaven Is for Real end up being weak. This would have been better left to the imaginations of the viewers.

Those who come into the film believing will likely walk away with their beliefs reinforced, but I doubt the film will have much impact on the nonbeliever. In fact, the nonbeliever will likely side with one of the characters in the film, who believes that there are natural explanations for what Colton experienced.

Where the film succeeds is sharing Colton’s story through his childlike eyes and portraying his loving relationship with his father. A side story about a mother/church elder who lost a son in the military provides a touching scene about jealousy and forgiveness.

Our children (ages 11-18) all enjoyed the film and were less critical than my wife and I. They particularly enjoyed the scenes with Colton, including his belting out the song We Will Rock You.

Is the movie worth seeing? Yes, but wait for the DVD release. In this instance, Heaven can wait.

Tim Drake is an award-winning writer and former journalist and radio host with the Register/EWTN.

He currently serves as New Evangelization coordinator for the Holdingford Area Catholic Community in the Diocese of St. Cloud, Minnesota.

He resides with his wife and five children in St. Joseph, Minnesota.

CAVEAT SPECTATOR: Some mild violence, including a fight involving children and a sports injury. The movie is rated PG for thematic material, including some medical situations, and for brief language.