Conviction is the word that keeps coming to mind in watching “Heaven Is for Real,” the latest faith-based film to debut this Passover-Easter season.
It is there in Todd Burpo’s story of his 4-year-old son’s near-death experience, which the Nebraska pastor chronicled in his New York Times bestseller. It is present in the performances of stars Greg Kinnear, Kelly Reilly, Margo Martindale, Thomas Haden Church and an adorable 6-year-old named Connor Corum.
There is conviction in director Randall Wallace’s approach and the screenplay he wrote with Christopher Parker. You see it in every frame, with cinematographer Dean Semler, an Oscar winner for “Dances With Wolves,” making the springtime wheat fields around Winnipeg, Canada, look heavenly.
And it is certainly there in young Colton Burpo’s unwavering belief that when he was on an operating table, not expected to survive an emergency appendectomy, he spent time in heaven talking to Jesus, hearing angels sing and meeting members of the Burpo family who died years before he was born.
It all serves to make “Heaven Is for Real” one of the better faith-based films to come along. What the movie could use is a little more faith — in the power of its message and the art of filmmaking. Instead, “Heaven” is sincere to a fault, and the closer it gets to heaven, the more it wavers.
The film is far better when it stays focused on the family and small-town life. That kind of rooted-in-the-real-world sensibility is what helped propel a book about a miracle into a modern-day phenomenon.
As the title suggests, Burpo wrote about his son’s glimpse of the afterlife, but the story is as much about a family in crisis, with medical and economic troubles right up there with religious struggles. Indeed, the core journey at “Heaven’s” heart is more about the road a man of faith traveled from doubt to belief than a tour of the spiritual realm.
“Heaven” does not begin with Burpo’s story, but with a beauty shot of a young girl in a rustic barn, bathed in sunlight, a canvas in front of her as she holds a paintbrush. It’s meant to evoke art prodigy Akiane Kramarik, whose portrait of Jesus young Colton would later single out as the only one that looked like the man he saw.
Most of the film, though, unfolds in Imperial, Neb., a farming community where Burpo (Kinnear) is a small-business owner, volunteer fireman, high-school wrestling coach, pastor, devoted husband and father. A self-deprecating saint in blue jeans and work boots, with the actor underplaying his hand very well. Wife Sonja (Reilly) is strong-willed, sensitive and sexy, in a modest way. Cassie (Lane Styles) and younger brother Colton are cute, smart kids. It’s very much a traditional American family ideal sketched in here — not enough time or money, but plenty of love.
A string of medical emergencies threatens to pull them under, financially and emotionally, starting with Burpo fracturing his leg during a softball game and capped by Colton’s appendectomy. For some reason the filmmakers are quite true to the father’s various ailments — his kidney-stone passing gets ample time. But Colton’s close call is dispensed with quickly. It’s like downplaying the genesis moment.
As Colton recovers, he begins to mention to his dad what he saw during the surgery. In Corum, making his film debut, director Wallace received a rare gift. The youngster does a remarkable job telegraphing an innocence and an absolute certainty whether he’s describing sitting on Jesus’ lap or marveling at the rainbow-colored horse he spotted. In lesser hands, the lines could have sounded ludicrous.
But it is the rapport between Kinnear and the boy that really holds the film together. They make the father-son relationship believable in a way that grounds “Heaven” and gives it some of its best moments.
To believe or not is the film’s burning question. It helps that Wallace, who wrote the screenplay for “Braveheart” and directed “Secretariat,” begins with Burpo’s uncertainty. The strains begin showing as the boy passes all the tests the father devises, fundamentally forcing Burpo to believe. Close family friends and pillars of the community begin raising other questions. Nancy Rawling (Martindale) fears all the talk of heaven will taint the church’s credibility, while the more pragmatic bank president Jay Wilkins (Haden Church) fears for his friend’s sanity and the church’s bottom line. There is a non-religious psychologist thrown in for good measure to be sure most of the doubters are addressed.
Not surprisingly, the film spends a lot of time in church, too much of it sitting there like filler. It becomes more centered any time Burpo begins one of his conversational sermons about how to live according to Christian principles.
“Heaven” certainly doesn’t shy away from frank religious talk. But at least when Kinnear is handling the narrative, it is delivered in a low-key way that plays to the actor’s strength. That decent and slightly bemused appeal you find in nearly all his roles helped shape his gay artist in “As Good as It Gets,” which earned Kinnear an Oscar nomination in 1998. He won a great many hearts with the sensibility as the patriarch of another close-knit family in 2006’s “Little Miss Sunshine.” It makes his compromised attorney in the current Fox TV drama series “Rake” both likable and forgivable. And the earthy and earthbound believer he creates in Burpo goes a long way to anchoring “Heaven” too.
More difficult is the filmmakers’ depiction of what Colton saw. Jesus is there briefly, in basic biblical-era wear, face in shadows, feet in sandals. There are gauzy angels with feathery wings, but nothing too distinct. Fundamentally, the hereafter is very cloudy, like looking out a plane window at an expanse of billowy white.
It all makes for a very ordinary-looking heaven, mirroring the kind of images artists have used for centuries. Not very awe-inspiring, which is somehow the hardest thing in this movie to believe.
‘Heaven Is for Real’
MPAA rating: PG for thematic material including some medical situations
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Playing: In general release