It may be quite surprising considering Hollywood's well-known liberal and secular bent, but there's a pretty mainstream movie out on Blu-ray now that not only sets itself in the middle of a Christian community, it doesn't make Christians out to be violent, knuckle-dragging wackos worthy of fear and derision.
And that alone makes "Heaven is for Real" worth mentioning. It's not only a real change of pace for today's Hollywood but, even better than that, it's a darn good film that just might make you ask some pointed questions about your own beliefs.
Written and directed by Randall Wallace, who wrote the Mel Gibson classic Braveheart and directed Gibson in We Were Soldiers (which he wrote as well), Heaven is for Real tells the story of real life small town father/preacher, Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear) whose son has a life changing experience while on a hospital operating table. Colton Burpo doesn't actually die briefly in the operating theater, but he does claim to have left his body and visited heaven - and he can remember his experience and tell about it in a way that makes his father think there's more to the story than mere anesthetic-induced hallucinations.
But before that, the movie opens on the other side of the world, where an as-yet-unknown girl is painting - an eye, as it turns out, though that will become a part of a larger painting that will figure into our story later. Then we cut to life in the Burpos world. He's a protestant minister, volunteer fireman, and all around good guy. His sermons connect with his congregation and it appears the town is pretty well the kind of Norman Rockwell community Hollywood seems to prefer thinking doesn't exist outside of weird horror movies. The people - at least the ones we get to meet - are involved in their families and their community, love their town and their lives, and are a pretty closely knit group who come together when times get rough.
Then Colton has his crisis, a medical emergency that sees him rush to the operating table in critical condition thanks to a ruptured appendix. While lying unconscious, with medical personnel buzzing around him like busy beess and his parents dealing with the crisis in their own individual ways, he leaves his body and goes to Heaven, where he gets to spend some quality time with Jesus, is serenaded by angels, and even meets some people he didn't know but who might play an important part later in the story.
Maybe it's because it wasn't Colton's time, or maybe God had other things planned for the tyke, or maybe it was the mass praying of the townsfolk in support of the Burpos, but for whatever reason Colton is returned to corporeal life - and boy, does he have a story to tell!
Except he doesn't just wake up and say "Guess where I've been?" It kind of comes out via circumstance - but he is changed in that he's at peace, without fear, and as his story comes out in bits, logically as far as the plot is concerned, some of the things he says he saw are things he couldn't - or at least shouldn't - have been able to see or know (I won't spoil it here). This helps convince his father that there's more to the story than just imagination or drugs.
Of course the story gets out and in today's secular society the tale of a kid visiting heaven could bring a lot of pointed fingers, accusations - and/or abuse. And this fact of today's life starts to test the faith of Todd's flock, some of whom are so rattled by this supposed evidence of a true Heaven (as opposed to the lip service they've been paying to it all their lives) that they start thinking about getting rid of Todd as their preacher, undoubtedly to bring in someone a little less embarrassing to the community.
Ironically, as it turns out, the least tolerant person in the movie is someone who should know better but who lets her secular prejudices get in the way of her listening powers. She isn't part of Todd's flock but is a person in an authority position and that doesn't work to her or Todd's benefit.
Based on a bestselling book of the same name, Heaven is for Real is a wonderful story told very well, and featuring a cast of journeyman performers who are definitely up to the task. Kinnear is perfect as Todd Burpo as is the luminous Kelly Reilly as his wife, Sonja. Thomas Haden Church plays Jay Wilkins, the local banker and Todd's close friend and the kid who plays Colton (Connor Corum) turns in a wonderful performance and there may be big things ahead for this young man.
The movie is also shot beautifully, with gorgeous widescreen shots that reflect well on the beauty of the landscapes (though in this case Manitoba filled in for Nebraska) - a tribute to God's handiwork, perhaps?
The Blu-ray does the vistas proud, with beautifully fine detail and rich, varied colors; heck, you can make out textures on clothes, buildings, etc., and it all looks gorgeous. Ditto the audio, which is DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 lossless and provides a nicely immersive soundstage, with a nicely balanced LFE channel.
There's a decent selection of extras, too, including Blu-ray exclusives "Creating Heaven" and "The Making of 'Heaven is for Real'", along with a bit about the real Colton and his family, some deleted scenes and trailers.
Sony's Blu-ray came in a package that also included a DVD and digital download included in the price.
I'm amazed that this movie could be made in Hollywood today. It not only is a compelling and challenging story about faith and other Big Things, it's written intelligently in a manner that treats Christians as real people, good people, rather than the twisted stereotype we're forced to endure so often.
Better have a poncho around in case your liberal friends see it in your library, though. Their heads just might explode.
Copyright 2014 Jim Bray