Colton Burpo was just four years old when a burst appendix sent him hovering above the operating table with a clear view of his mom in the waiting room making calls for prayers and his dad cursing God in the chapel.
As these snippets tumble out with tot-like clarity, grown adults are reduced to tears or rendered speechless. Frequently it was both.
In "Heaven is for Real," the protagonist in this perfectly cast and scripted version of the bestselling novel of the same name walks with the wobble of newborn colt. His squints and squirms and face rubbing are all in luxurious sync.(Connor Corum's performance as Colton is so credible, certainly he was the one who "sat on Jesus' lap").
What occurs in "Heaven is for Real" is a spectacular piece of inspired film making that neither embellishes nor uses contrivances to illicit the audience's response. It simply tells the story of Colton and the impact his heavenly visit dispatches to every corner of his family and then, community.
Director Randall Wallace (best known for "Braveheart" and "Man in the Iron Mask") has a deft touch that is clean and resolute. Like an expert interviewer leading his subject to emerge with more clarity as a result of his deft handling, this story is all heart and simplicity and all the more poignant for it.
The acting is off the charts.
Greg Kinnear (Todd Burpo) kills it with a charm and chemistry that manages to harness all his co-stars into the zone. The affability radiating between all the central characters is a key element grounding this picture in warmth. That Connor/Colton is so completely at ease and happy to be around his faux father makes the acting simply nominal or stratospheric.
Kelly Reilly (Sonja Burpo), whose star has been rising in England over the years, rings of Toni Collette. Her earthy beauty and charm makes her far more attractive than genetics dictates. She manages to make her Sonja so real and fragile and strong and devoted that whole spasm of movie goers will leave theaters with a reclaimed vision of marriage as something enjoyable and worthwhile.
As the Burpo's son emerges from his near death experience somewhat changed, Colton is still very much an innocent. The unnerving statements that seem to tumble out sans warning leaves his father clearly startled, though to his enormous credit, Todd never leads or gets in the way of what his son has to say. Director Wallace prefers this four-year-old talk in his own language. The tiny statements are all the more potent for it.
Sonja has a riveting scene where, once doubting anything other than perhaps her son has a "beautiful imagination," she is thunderstruck as he delivers a line he has no business knowing. It's hard to imagine any other actress topping Reilly's controlled yet devastating response. Clearly she is dismantled by his words and simultaneously struggles to not to frighten him by her emotional reaction as any mother would. Only Naomi Watts could hit a similar mark.
At the end of the day, "Heaven is for Real" is neither preachy or religious. It is woven in a tidy and unsensational manner that makes the movie...well, sensational.
In an industry infected with violence, sex and cruelty, "Heaven is for Real" levitates above the rest as a worthy screenplay written by a director confident enough to let the story tell itself and then frame it in the simplest scenery.
When reflected against last year's Palme d'Or winner (Palme d' "Porn") "Blue is the Warmest Color," consider this: "Blue" did $2 (two) million TOTAL gross sales. And "Heaven" did $22 million opening weekend alone on the way to a $100 million box office. Guess what audiences want?
"Heaven" is indeed, for real.