Starring Greg Kinnear, Connor Corum, Kelly Reilly, Margo Martindale, Thomas Haden Church, Lane Styles
Directed by Randall Wallace
Written by Randall Wallace and Christopher Parker
Based on the book by Todd Burpo with Lynn Vincent
Produced by Joe Roth and T. D. Jakes
Director of Photography, Dean Semier
Production Designer, Arv Greywal

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Is Heaven for real? 

That intriguing, ages-old, eternal question is the simple, yet extraordinarily complex, question at the heart of director and co-screenwriter Randall Wallace’s new film “Heaven is for Real,” which ends up being a surprisingly, reassuringly and thankfully humanistic, realistic, down-to-earth, sensible—and pleasingly heartwarming and uplifting—adaptation of the 2010 bestselling non-fiction book of the same name by Nebraska pastor and businessman Todd Burpo and Lynn Vincent.  To the surely welcome relief of everyone—religious and non-religious folks—this film approaches deep, theological and difficult religious-based questions with a real-life, approachable, often-funny and continuously intelligent, provocative and thought-provoking small-town sensibility, and also deftly, cleverly and intelligently avoids preaching, sermonizing or proselytizing about anything religious, thus presenting a film about religion that approaches the subject with reason, common sense, emotion—and plenty of heart.

The success and admiration for the overall filmic achievement of “Heaven is for Real” can start with the intriguing, interesting and actually fascinating true-life story that the film is based upon.  About ten to twelve years ago in Imperial, Neb., local pastor, businessman and volunteer firefighter Todd Burpo (played with a down-to-earth everyman quality by the continually reliable and impressive Greg Kinnear) suddenly faced the most tragic experience any parent could face:  his charming, adorable, lovable 4-year-old son Colton had to undergo emergency surgery.  After some agonizing moments at the hospital while Colton is operated on, Colton does indeed make it through the surgery, and he indeed recovers.  However, it’s what happens next that throws everyone into some of the most challenging times of their lives:  Colton—who is 4 years old, remember—starts talking about going to Heaven while he was undergoing surgery, describes events that happened during his surgery at the hospital that were accurate, talks about long-dead relatives he had not yet been told about, and describes meeting Jesus, God, angels and what they were like, and he goes into great detail about what Jesus, God and angels did as guardians of mankind, and what Heaven is actually like.

Before anyone says, “Oh, kids, you know, they make things up all the time!” those skeptics—and this isn’t taking sides at all, this isn’t being religious and this is not taking on a devout, slanted, skewed pro-religious-biased argument—not at all, not on any level—observers and followers of the Burpo story have to remember that Colton was 4 years old when he said all of this.  Four.   When Colton came out of surgery, he told his father, Todd Burpo, that he saw Todd Burpo in the hospital chapel yelling at God and that he saw his mom, Sonja (the beautiful and arresting Kelly Reilly) crying in the waiting room.  Well, during the surgery, Todd Burpo did indeed go into the hospital chapel and yell at God, and Sonja Burpo was indeed crying in the waiting room, according to the Burpos. And Colton asked about a relative of Todd’s—who Colton had not been told about.  And the details of his stories were far beyond even a prodigy 4-year-old’s skill set and skill level in terms of descriptions, storytelling, detail and pure, 4-year-old honesty, according to the Burpos’ account.  As a colleague noted, “Four-year-olds don’t talk like that.”  And that’s just true.  However, Colton’s story about going to Heaven is what Todd, Sonja and Colton Burpo claimed then and continue to claim to this day—including a defiant Colton, who is now a teenager and someone who still talks openly about his experiences when he was 4 years old.  And no one really believes that it’s some type of scam or con or delusion—that’s not one of the options when people delve deeper into the Burpo’s full story.

In real life and in the film, Todd Burpo—a small-town Midwestern pastor, remember—actually doesn’t know what to make of 4-year-old Colton’s tales about Heaven.  Although he’s a preacher, a religious man and a man of God who preaches to his small congregation every Sunday, one would naturally expect there to be a quick, easy, religious-based acceptance of Colton’s stories by Todd. Yet, the stark, in-the-face and apparent absolute reality of Colton’s stories actually present Todd with brain-wracking, tormenting theological, intellectual and religious dilemmas, challenges, problems and anxieties he didn’t expect to face:  Is Colton telling the actual, real truth?  Did his 4-year-old son go to Heaven and actually meet with—and talk to, as Colton claimed—Jesus, God and angels?  Did the deepest mysteries of life, the universe and everything actually reveal themselves to little 4-year-old Colton Burpo in Imperial, Nebraska, as he lay on a hospital bed during surgery?  Is that really what happened? And if so, what does that mean? Why Colton? Why here, why now, why this cute little blond-headed boy in the middle of Nebraska? 

Did Todd Burpo’s son Colton, 4 years old, meet Jesus, God and angels in Heaven?

It is that basic question, and the aforementioned tractor load of related perplexing questions of the ages, that send Todd, his wife, Colton, Colton’s tough sister Cassie, and the Burpo’s friends, acquaintances, co-workers, neighbors and congregants into a tailspin of introspection, doubt, conflict, questioning, angst and even separation as everyone tries to make sense of the situation.  And that swirling web of conflict provides the fascinating foundation for the film’s basic story:  Everyone in the Burpo family and in the Burpo’s community tries to deal with Colton’s story, Todd’s support and defense of Colton’s story—with the many attendant questions and conflicts associated with those stories—and just what all of this means, or possibly means.  That’s not easy, and it strains relationships—including that between Todd and Sonja, and that between Todd and his congregation, and that between Todd and his co-workers and his friends. And, again, that just makes for great storytelling.

Even while the film explores these conflicts and while some of the “boy-who-cried-wolf” style reactions may appear clichéd—because they are clichéd—that familiar nature of people’s varied reactions to seemingly unbelievable stories is still fascinating. That’s why that basic conflict—someone trying to warn or tell or explain something they have experienced to a wider, disbelieving public and people turning away from the person with the warning or story or experience—is always interesting.  It’s interesting in the Burpo’s true-life story, and it’s interesting in the film presentation of that story.  Just how do people deal with a suddenly outrageous and unbelievable story from their friend, their neighbor, their fellow volunteer firefighter—their pastor? That’s an interesting question, and the exploration of that question in the film is continuously interesting.  

Just how do people in the small Nebraska community deal with their pastor, who is telling them that his 4-year-old son went to Heaven and talked with Jesus, God and angels?  How do you deal with that? How do you talk to Todd and explain to him that, well, even though one is a religious person and goes to church—they just can’t believe that little Colton went to Heaven.

The temptation to delve into religious preaching and sermonizing at this point is strong—but, again, that is exactly where “Heaven is for Real” steers away from preaching and approaches the story delicately, humanely and in a most humanistic fashion. The smart script by Wallace (who wrote “Braveheart” and many other films) and Christopher Parker makes sure to make all of the Burpos as real and down-to-earth and personable as possible. That means including funny, quaint and even charming family scenes like the four of them singing, badly, in the car to “We Will Rock You.”  Who hasn’t done that—possibly within the past week?  There are little moments of tenderness when Todd sits on the kids’ beds at night and talks softly to them so they can go to sleep in peace. What’s more real than that?  And there are scenes between Todd and his fellow firefighters where they rag on him, kid him, and basically give him hell as his profile grows due to a newspaper interview and the subsequent publicity that gives to Colton’s story—of course that’s what guy friends are going to do. And the scenes when school kids tease and bully Cassie on the playground about her brother and she fights back—yes, it’s clichéd, but in this film, this scene, and these other similar scenes, are written with a deftness and a caring by Wallace and Parker that avoids too much stereotyping, generalizing and compartmentalizing.  Everyone remains real, and grounded.  And there is humor and light-heartedness and grace—aspects of writing, storytelling and characterization that are, truly, alas, too lacking in much of the hyper-paced, hyper-written, hyper-edited—and dumbed-down—moviemaking of the times.

The slick, clever achievement of “Heaven is for Real” is that Wallace, Parker and producers Joe Roth (an industry veteran who’s produced and directed films and run studios for more than 35 years) and T. D. Jakes keep a close eye and ear to the script, the story, the characters and the presentation to keep everything grounded in common sense, intelligence and Imperial, Nebraska.  There is nothing happening outside of Imperial.  There is no national or worldwide insanity or religious wars or riots or anything moronic or idiotic that lesser filmmakers would have jumped on. Everything remains firmly grounded in a small group of people in a small town—who just happen to be dealing with some of the greatest, most mysterious questions in all of history. That contrast—between the closeness of a small-town community and the greater greatness of the inherent questions at the root of the story—is part of the fascinating premise and foundation.

There are some subtle hints at a greater power at hand—whether one believes it’s religious or just part of a greater part of the natural beauty of science and nature:  director of photography Dean Semier and production designer Arv Greywal paint the film in beautiful pastoral landscapes, vistas, fields and horizons of green pastures, colorful flowers, comfortable country homes, starkly white clouds against deep blue skies, and country signatures such as old barns, farmhouses and more fields, along with a comforting, welcoming small town that could fit into a 1940s Capra film.  Is all of that corny or over-reaching or tacky or overly obvious? No, because when the camera lingers over such beautiful country settings and lets the reality of the real beauty of just simple nature come through in a film to provide a reminder that maybe there’s some type of heaven on earth—not in any religious sense, mind you, but of a purely natural sense–that’s what film should be doing:  using its power to showcase the natural beauty of the environment, the country, the outdoors, and nature. These scenes in “Heaven” are just beautiful, and they provide a comforting backdrop to the increasing conflict and even disdain that seem to be rising in Imperial.

Greg Kinnear captures the inner conflicts of Todd Burpo perfectly—it’s a disarming portrayal.  Kinnear’s Burpo is such an everyman, such a regular Joe, you forget that he is also a man of religion, a pastor and someone who tries to lead a congregation. He is not Moses on the mountaintop, but Todd Burpo on the pulpit in Imperial, Nebraska. To present both sides of this intriguing man, and to present the conflicts that Todd faces as he tries to deal with Colton’s story, Kinnear’s performance is engaging. And he’s ably supported by Reilly, whose character Sonja loves her husband and wants to support and believe him and Colton, but she is concerned about her family—and her family’s survival. She does not want to see them fail at the expense of Todd’s open examination of Colton’s stories.  That conflict is also ably presented in a strong performance by Reilly.  Margo Martindale and Thomas Haden Church, veteran actors who deserve more leading roles of their own, play the leaders of Todd’s church who find it increasingly difficult to support Todd, and they just don’t know what to do.

There is a scene between Martindale’s character, Nancy Rawlings, and Kinnear’s Todd Burpo in which both of them face their fears, their doubts, their questions, their conflicts—with each other, with religion and with their God—that is so well-written, so well-acted, it’s the type of scene that can change, anchor and support the rest of the story simply through its strength, power and insight.  That scene also offers deeper insights into the nature of Burpo and his dealings with religion and his congregants.  And, it’s a scene that further shows the film’s intelligence.

Little Connor Corum, in his feature film debut, indeed is one of those natural actors who will not make the viewer think they are watching a precocious, old-soul little kid acting in a film. Rather, Connor’s mannerisms, facial expressions and physical walking and talking are what your average 4-year-old boy would say and do—again, a credit to the filmmakers.  They did not have an acting actor in Corum, but a natural, pure, more honest actor that pretty much just presented a real 4-year-old on screen.

Part of the enjoyment of “Heaven,” and any good film, is watching the various characters develop, move forward, learn and deal with their conflicts in an understanding, caring and, eventually, accepting manner.  To see how Todd Burpo, his family, his friends and co-workers and his congregants resolve their differences is also satisfying and intelligently presented.

There are numerous lessons, morals, themes and messages presented in “Heaven,” of course, but one lesson that stands out is simply the lesson of trying to figure out and deal with what we can’t really figure out and deal with.  To see people wrestle with, struggle with, and eventually comes to terms with, the great questions of life and death is thoughtful, impressive, insightful—and inspiring.

Wallace himself offers some great insight into the Burpo’s story—and the film—in the film’s studio production notes.  “It’s really about the idea that we just might find out that life is greater than we have ever imagined,” Wallace says.  “And that we might not only find love, but we might also find how to give love–that, to me, is the essence of faith.”

Now, who among us—religious or not religious—can argue with that insight?

If there is indeed a Heaven, the organizers in charge of Movie Night will surely be booking “Heaven is for Real” for an extended run.


John Hanshaw

John Hanshaw

founded WFI in the Fall of 2007. He has worked in film and television for over ten years at such institutions as NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation), PBS and most recently National Geographic. He has degrees from Amherst College, Cambridge University, and GW Law.