There have been several religious-themed films released this year. That’s not necessarily a good thing. Noah was a trip into gnostic thought that was also not a very good film. Son of God was a re-edit of “The Bible” TV miniseries from last year, and most of the buzz around the film dealt with the handsomeness of the actor playing Jesus. I haven’t seen God’s Not Dead, because it falls into a frustrating genre for me: the Christian film that works backwards. It has its premise, and then comes up with a story to prove it. It can be edifying for those who already believe, but it’s unlikely to stimulate thought. Rather it’s more like a celluloid pat on the back for believers. Another movie in the offing Exodus: Gods and Kings from Director Ridley Scott with Christian Bale as Moses; it’s scheduled for release during the Christmas season. Sandwiched in between these movies is a smaller film that deals with a harder topic – belief in the eternal spirit – in a realistic way: Heaven Is For Real.
The movie is based on the 2010 bestseller by Todd Burpo about the experience of his son Colton. When Colton was 4 years old, he almost died when appendicitis flooded his body with toxins. The doctors were able to save him and he was never clinically dead. However, after he recovered Colton began telling his family about how he’d visited heaven.
In the movie, Greg Kinnear portrays Todd Burpo, the pastor of a Wesleyan Church in a small Nebraska town. While the church provides a parsonage for the family, Burpo must also work servicing garage doors to try to make ends meet, especially since he wants his wife Sonja (Kelly Reilly) to be a full-time mother for their daughter Cassie (Lane Styles) and son Colton (Connor Corum). Todd is also a member of the town’s volunteer fire department. Times are tough; when we first meet Todd, he’s fixing a door for a store but is paid in trade (carpet for a classroom at the church) rather than cash. He has the support of two pillars of the church: banker Jay Wilkins (Thomas Hayden Church) who’s the board chairman, and church pianist Nancy Rawling (Margo Martindale).
Then things get tougher. During a baseball game with the fire department’s team, Todd breaks his leg. When he’s starting to recover from that, he’s laid low by kidney stones. As with many families in the past, a significant illness pushes them to the edge of a financial cliff. When Colton’s hit with appendicitis, Todd’s reaches a breaking point in his faith. He goes into the hospital chapel while Colton’s in surgery and yells at God. In the meantime Sonja calls church members to get them praying for Colton. Colton pulls through, and everyone is grateful. Then slowly, as is perfectly normal for a 4 year old, he begins to tell about his experiences in heaven. As word spreads, the reactions of people are all too human.
The movie was directed and co-written by Randall Wallace, who was nominated for an Oscar for his screenplay for Braveheart and had also directed 2010’s Secretariat. Wallace lets the camera tell the story, at times letting scenes play out without words since any dialogue is superfluous. He takes a page out of William Wyler’s playbook, who never revealed Jesus’s face during Ben Hur, and made the film much stronger because of it. There is an interesting reveal of a pictorial representation of Jesus that actually ties in with another child’s experience of heaven. If you’ve seen the movie and would like to learn more about the painting, click here.
Greg Kinnear has a little of Jimmy Stewart in him. He has the ability to portray regular people in a compelling way. You feel his struggle as he tries to repair his broken faith while dealing with his son’s experience. Kelly Reilly is excellent as Sonja, who’s more willing to accept mystery than her husband. Their relationship has the feel of a true marriage, be it flirting with each other or struggling with the bills. Margo Martindale is a character actor extraordinaire, and she has a moment to shine brightly as a woman dealing with a devastating loss. The movie succeeds, though, thanks to first-time actor Connor Corum, who embodies Colton with an incredible naturalness. If he had just been a “actor” the movie would have been leaden and turgid, but you never catch him acting. One scene in the movie, when Colton searches out a patient in the hospital, is beautifully simple and will likely bring tears to your eyes.
This movie portrays wrestling with faith without the histrionics (and strange ideas) of Noah, and without stacking the deck like in movies such as God’s Not Dead. Most in the audience will identify closely with at least one of the characters, and perhaps hear words they’ve used in the past. That makes it unusual in the realm of religious movies: rather than trying to engender belief through “proving” God, it’s happy to leave you wondering about how we live in light of the experiences portrayed in the film. It’s not a “yes or no” movie; it lives in the “what if” of faith.