(Screenshot: Billy Hallowell/YouTube; Sony Pictures)
Heaven is for Real tells the story of the small town Nebraskan Burpo family whose 4-year-old son Colton has a near-death experience where he visits heaven and meets Jesus.
The unraveling of this majestic vision is documented in the film, but it doesn't seem to be the main focus. Instead, the movie makers chose to deviate from stressing the vision, and decided rather to show the day-to-day life of the Burpo family and how they balanced church, work and bills with their son's experience.
Greg Kinnear does a fantastic job as Todd Burpo, a jack-of-all-trades that pastors a church, repairs things and fights fires. He becomes skeptical of God's actions once his son is laid up on the operating table for a ruptured appendix. He wrestles with the actual experience and this struggle continues well into the boy's recovery and his explanation of his visit to heaven.
The film reveals Colton's story in small parts and each piece seems to bring his father Todd closer to believing. By the end, Todd embraces the vision and uses it as a source of inspiration to move forward in his church and family life.
Heaven is for Real accomplishes the task of enticing skeptics. It may not convert staunch atheists who have never known God, but rather those who might have been raised in some sort of faith and but have never experienced God firsthand. Colton's story could encourage them to seek out God's face in a way they never thought possible. The film features several scenes that help to legitimize the vision including one where Colton tells his mother, who is actually a bigger skeptic than Todd, about his sister that he saw in heaven. This sister actually ends up being a baby the couple miscarried and never told Colton about.
Believers looking for sound Christian doctrine might find themselves a bit disappointed with some scenes, however. In a theologically shaky part with Todd Burpo and a woman from his church named Nancy Rawling, the pastor explains to her why he might believe her young adult son is in heaven who died recently. Unfortunately, his reasoning has little to do with Jesus and the salvation of the cross. By confirming her unconditional love for her son, Burpo makes her feel justified in the belief that her boy resides with God with little discussion of what he actually believed. This scene flirted with universalism, and differs wholly from the book, which stayed true to the gospel.
Heaven is for Real is a solid family film, but has few surprises and lacks some of the best parts of the book. The Hollywood touch on the story detracts from the excitement of Colton's vision. The film's focus on the family's everyday life is relatable, but is something everyone has seen before.
Conner Corum, who plays 4-year old Colton, was excellent, stealing scenes and viewers' hearts whenever he was present. Still, the literature will surpass the film simply by revealing more of the vision. I wanted to see everything Colton saw and draw my own conclusion about it as a believer, but unfortunately, so little was shown that I couldn't see that "heaven is for real."