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'Heaven is for Real' explores truth without agenda

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Heaven is for Real

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Given its subject matter and release in coordination with the paramount Christian holiday of Easter, it’s easy to assume that "Heaven is for Real" is a movie made specifically for a faith-based audience. And to one way of looking at it, it is.

But that said, "Heaven is for Real" engages an inquiry that could just as easily apply to those of any faith, or none at all. Were it to have been released on some-odd weekend in November, its more pointed exploration would stand, and arguably even moreso. I’d argue the latter, and it’s a perspective I had the privilege of exploring earlier this week with cast member Thomas Haden Church.

Based on the worldwide bestseller, "Heaven is for Real" brings us the true experience of Todd Burpo, a happily married Midwestern family man working two jobs to make ends meet in a strained economy, one of which is serving as the pastor of a local church.

A penny doesn’t go as far as it used to, but Todd’s spirits remain high, firmly grounded in his faith and in his solid relationships with friends and family. And rather than ever doubting a secure outcome, Todd remains engaged and available to his community both as a youth sports coach and volunteer firefighter. Though times are tough, life is happy.

Until, that is, four-year-old son Colton is rushed into emergency surgery from which he may very well not emerge alive. The experience sends the Burpo family reeling, but it’s nothing compared to what awaits: Colton does survive, and begins matter-of-factly describing, in almost oblique passing reference, the details of his trip to Heaven during the operation.

Is this the product of a child’s routinely active imagination? A series of signals flashing through the brain under the strange environment of general anesthetic and physical trauma? Or did Colton actually visit… Heaven?

The first two are easy – and comfortable – explanations. But what happens when Colton begins speaking of events and people of documented fact and of which he has no knowledge? And how did he know his parents’ specific activities while he was on the table?

Todd Burpo feels compelled to pursue the inquiry, and soon also does wife Sonja, but it leads to the most difficult decision of all: whether or not to share this remarkable event with the public. At best it would be received as an unsolvable mystery, and at worst a zealous propaganda argument founded upon a child’s fabrication.

As one might expect, the very mention of it spreads through the town like electricity, igniting a firestorm of impassioned reaction and sobering consequence for all concerned.

Because it’s designed to coincide with Easter, many viewers – most likely Christians thus naturally inclined to be unusually afterlife-minded just now – may find "Heaven is for Real" to be a bit thin on the meat of the matter. Much attention is spent in communicating the stability and sincerity of the Burpo family and its community, presenting an almost episodic slice-of-life for much of the first half.

Even once the larger subject kicks in, we don’t hear as much about Colton’s experience as perhaps we’d like; actual depictions of his impressions are surprisingly minimal. Thus if one were hoping for substantial exploration of the particulars of his journey, be prepared to be disappointed; not in the film per se, but in the rendering of the entirety of his experience (apparently there was more such description in the book, for those interested in continuing the conversation).

Discussions of Speaking Truth in Love with Thomas Haden Church

"Heaven is for Real" actually explores a much larger inquiry, and one that I think may be somewhat lost in the shuffle amid its tantalizing possibilities.

It’s the story of the explanation truth: what one believes for oneself is true, what one believes is true based on acceptance of the veracity of another’s account, obstacles to accepting what is true, obstacles to communicating what one believes to be true, and what is actually, empirically true – which of course none of us pea-brained mortals has the capacity to know, anyway.

In this sense, "Heaven is for Real" joins other such narratives. I’m reminded most especially of "Contact", in which Jodie Foster came back from a paradigm-shifting experience without empirical proof and faced similar difficulties as the Burpos; where the Burpos had a faith-based experience and were challenged by the more scientifically-minded, Foster’s Ellie Arroway was a scientist who ultimately accepted a faith-based approach to the event – and both were where vehemently opposed by their own peers as well.

Speaking truth ain’t easy, especially when speaking truth to power, whether that power is the monarch, the government, or one’s peer group and community.

It was the spirit of this theme that I had the privilege of exploring with actor Thomas Haden Church, who portrays Todd Burpo’s friend Jay Wilkins.

I had been quite struck by Mr. Haden Church’s remarks on the subject during an interview some years ago regarding the NC-17 rating of an earlier film of his, "Killer Joe" (I still can’t quite believe I’m referencing that film in the context of this one). There, the goings-on were so deeply pernicious and the consequence so vile that many moviegoers found the film too difficult to tolerate.

Speaking to this aspect, Haden Church had made the astute remark that “the movie goes after a very graphic, but [he thinks] honest, interpretation of what can happen when some very desperate people are having to deal with the truth” (the details of which we shan’t go into here – though I will mention that "Killer Joe" is a magnificent piece of filmmaking on all fronts, if you can take it).

Suffice to say, as Haden Church pointed out, when someone takes an action knowing full well the response they can count on from another, “all bets are off and things can get very ugly, very quickly.” It’s this unvarnished reality of the world that people struggle, some unsuccessfully, to look in the eye.

While the family in "Killer Joe" is about as diametrically opposed to the Burpos with regard to mental health and honorable behavior as I think it’s probably possible to get, it’s interesting that both films occasion the same debate on the part of the audience:

“I’m being presented with something far outside my experience which, if I face it squarely and grant belief in it as truth, may well upend my understanding of the world around me. But I can easily choose to conclude that it’s something about that other person, a mental or character weakness on their part, that is driving the suggestion I accept this thing before me as the truth of things. As long as I can hold onto that, I don’t have to change my world view, or face the internal upset of examining at why I find that so difficult to do.”

"Heaven is for Real"’s Jay Wilkins was (is?) a local banker, close friend of Todd Burpo, and member the governing council of the church for which Burpo was pastor. Amid the swirl of reaction, curiosity, and pushback surrounding Colton’s revelations, Jay reminds Todd both of the importance of being true to his family, his son, and his faith even as he remains fully open-eyed as to the effects his actions would have on himself, his family, and his church.

Said Haden Church in an earlier interview, “Jay is someone who really finds he has to challenge Todd in the way that only a close male friend can – he challenges him to move forward, to decide in his heart what the truth of this is – and then to embrace that.”

Haden Church was also instrumental in the way in which this played out in the film, being very clear with director Randall Wallace that this counsel must not be delivered with a drama-filled diatribe of “Look what you’re doing! Think of your family!” but rather be brought forward with a calm, straight resolve.

In watching the film, this reminded me of Haden Church’s Jack in "Sideways" (another arguably freakish companion in discussing "Heaven is for Real"), who for all his own addictive foibles nonetheless was a great truth teller to friend Miles, who had wandered quite far afield of rational perspective regarding his own addictive foibles. Jack stood by Miles without fail and to great lengths, never letting him off the hook to go wallow in self-pity, but always confronting him kindly.

And in thinking further about this, I even saw a glimmer of this quality in his horrifically obtuse Ansel from Killer Joe, who did the best he could in issuing the instruction, “Stay down,” in hopes of mitigating the severity of one character’s impending fate.

In speaking with Thomas Haden Church, then, I asked him whether this theme of truth running through his work was deliberate or had simply evolved organically.

I think he’s probably too modest to state outright that this dynamic draws his attention, but he did share that back with his first major role as Lowell, the mechanic of the TV series "Wings", he sought to bring every bit of honesty he could to Lowell. That in studying the other, more experienced actors and in taking direction, he sought to learn the craft from them, but always keep Lowell as honest and open and straight as he possibly could, right down to riveting a bolt onto a wing.

He went on to mention that when it came to "Easy A", he had originally been pegged to play the father (ultimately played by the marvelous Stanley Tucci), but that he preferred and requested playing Mr. Griffith, the teacher who always spoke straight to Emma Stone’s Olive, doing his best to convey to her the perspective and consequence of her actions, that she may not one day come to regret them.

And finally, he shared that there was a deleted scene between Jay and Todd that quite powerfully illustrated the nature of their relationship and the strength that Jay offered (perhaps we’ll get lucky with the DVD features). It had to be cut in an either/or decision with a pivotal scene involving Margo Martindale (you’ll know it when you see it). Haden Church had supported that decision completely, as it spoke to the upheaval Colton’s experience triggered for her, as she struggled with the truth of her understanding of her God.

By this time, his support didn’t surprise me a bit.

If you’re of the Christian faith, of course you probably already have "Heaven is for Real" on your short list, and it’s a terrific family outing for this holiday weekend. But even if you’re not, it’s worth a look; "Heaven is for Real" doesn’t seek to posit what the truth is, but rather documents one family’s coming to terms with facing and living out the consequences of what it believes it to be.

And that’s a universal human conversation, whatever one believes.

Story: A father struggles with the decision of whether or not to share publicly his young son’s life-altering and unsettlingly accurate report – specifically, that during his recent emergency surgery, he visited... Heaven.

Genre: Drama, true story

Starring: Greg Kinnear, Kelly Reilly, Thomas Haden Church, Margo Martindale, Connor Corum, Lane Styles

Directed by: Randall Wallace

MPAA: PG

Running time: 100 minutes

Houston release date: April 16, 2014

Tickets: Check Fandango, IMDb, or your local listings

Screened April 10th 2014 at the AMC Studio 30 theater in Houston TX

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