MRR Review: "Heaven is for Real"

Photo Credit: Sony Pictures Releasing

Rating: PG
Length: 100 minutes
Release Date: April 16, 2014
Directed by: Randall Wallace
Genre: Drama

Near-death experiences have long been the subject of countless stories, theories, speculation, and in some cases, movies. However, even after centuries of tales of near death perception of the afterlife and subsequent analysis and conjecture, there is something about the story behind the book and the movie, "Heaven Is for Real," that has captured the imagination of both filmmakers and the public.

The full title of the 2010 book is, "Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy's Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back." When the book was first released, it was number three on "The New York Times" bestseller list and soon hit the number one spot. There have also been well over a million electronic copies of the book sold, and the book shot back into bestseller lists in early 2014 in anticipation of the movie release.

Director Randall Wallace, along with a supremely talented cast, headed by Greg Kinnear as Pastor Todd Burpo, work hard, and often very effectively, to bring to life whatever it is that makes the book, "Heaven Is for Real," so resonant with readers.

Religious films are nothing new. In fact, cinematic retelling of biblical stories is an art almost as old as film itself. Notable early feature-length examples include Cecil B. DeMille's original "The Ten Commandments" in 1923 and "Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ" in 1926. This type of movies has long found sizable mainstream audiences, and 2014 is a particularly fertile year for Bible-oriented movies, with "Noah," "Exodus: Gods and Kings" and "Son of God."However, what sets "Heaven Is for Real" apart from these others is that it is not a direct retelling or even an adaptation of a well-known Bible story. Rather, it is a story that takes place in the here and now with elements that will appeal to Christian as well as mainstream audiences. The basics of the story are well known by now, especially to the movie's built-in audience of people who have already read the book. Pastor Todd Burpo's 3-year-old son, Colton, sees vivid visions of an afterlife, Heaven specifically, while undergoing an operation. Reportedly, things that Colton sees are things that he could have not known about otherwise, including deceased relatives. However, the experience at the center of it all is only part of the story, and "Heaven is for Real" does a good job telling the full dramatic tale.

Todd Burpo is not just a pastor, but also deeply involved with his Midwestern community in numerous ways. He is a firefighter as well as coach for wrestlers at the local high school. However, Burpo's involvement and good standing locally does not mean that everyone automatically believes the story of his son's near-death experience. Members of his own church are surprisingly skeptical. The struggle to not only sell his son's story, but also to believe it himself leaves the pastor conflicted. His inner turmoil is reflected on a larger scale in the community as everybody in Burpo's sphere is affected in one way or another. This results in a questioning of once steadfast faith on a personal level for Burpo himself and in the local religious community. Greg Kinnear is impressive in his ability to convey his turmoil along with his never-ending determination in a way that is at once subtle and believable but is also eminently relatable.

Director Randall Wallace has been involved with no small number of enormously successful projects, including the sole screenwriting credit for "Braveheart" and director credits for "We Were Soldiers" and "Secretariat." What all of these movies have in common is an epic sweep and unusually wide appeal, sensibilities that the director also brings to "Heaven Is for Real." The Nebraska that Wallace captures, with the aid of always-excellent cinematographer Dean Semler, is lush, expansive, richly colored and quite intentionally heavenly. The epic visual sweep of "Heaven Is for Real" strongly sells a story that encompasses the infinite at its heart.

At this point, "Heaven Is for Real" is not a tough sell to audiences, with an astronomical number of fans of the book willing to invest in a movie ticket. In cases like these, the filmmakers may be tempted to rest on their laurels and produce something that is simply good enough. Fortunately, in the case of "Heaven is for Real," this is clearly not what happened. The directing, writing and acting all effectively lay out the intricacies of this famous story in a way that will delight new audiences as well as those already familiar with it.