When the book, “Heaven is for Real” came out in 2010 it was practically an overnight success and a lightning bolt for controversy. Written by Pastor Todd Burpo and father of the boy who visited heaven, the book has sold millions of copies and has become so popular that Heaven is for Real Ministries was established in May of 2011. It is then no surprise that a movie has been made about the experience.
The simple storyline is that 4-year-old Colton was rushed to the hospital and had a near-death experience where he went to heaven for a short visit and then told everyone about it. The previews of the movie suggest that the story would be treated with a heavy dose of saccharine and for the first ten minutes or so, it is.
The Burpo family is a model for society. In addition to his preaching duties, Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear) runs his own business, volunteers for the fire department and coaches Little League. His wife Sonja (Kelly Reilly) is a stay-at-home mom and leads the church’s choir. Their children are little angels. They are well-liked in their small town and even though the Burpo’s struggle financially, Todd doesn’t ask for help in fear that if he does so, people would think that he is just another money-grabbing preacher. Everything is perfect, so it seems. However, stick with it as the story gets better.
Not reading the book ahead of time, I experienced the movie without any background knowledge of the story. Yes, little Colton (Connor Corum) is cute and not a bad actor for the ripe age of four, but the movie smartly focuses more on the adults. The story is less about Colton’s visit to heaven and more about “what would you do if your kids suddenly told you that they’ve been to heaven?” In fact, Colton’ pretty much treats the whole incident as a fun adventure, but not much more.
At first, both Todd and Sonja attribute Colton’s story as a far-fetched imagination, but as more is revealed on what Colton saw in heaven, Todd is not so sure. Colton begins to describe people whom he has never met including Todd’s grandfather. Sonja is willing to just let the boy’s experience be a mystery and wishes that her husband can just let it go, but he can’t. As the story travels around the small town, the Burpo family begins to be seen by others as freaks. Kids tease Colton’s sister as school, reporters want to interview Colton and church members want the pastor to step down from leadership. A wedge starts to develop between Todd and Sonja’s marriage too.
Yes, parts of Heaven is for Real is heavy-handed and at times preachy. Still, the movie surprises with scenes that initially make your roll your eyes (the family singing “This Little Light of Mine” on a road trip) and then quickly making you laugh (the same family changes the song to Queen’s “We Will Rock You.”) Also, the movie also strives to show the Burpo’s as a real family with real problems. When was the last time you’ve seen a pastor’s wife throw a glass in the sink out of anger from her husband in a movie? Margo Martindale and Thomas Haden Church round out the cast with some excellent scenes as well.
Heaven’s story was adapted Randall Wallace and Christopher Parker. Wallace is known for directing Secretariat, We Were Soldiers and The Man in the Iron Mask. Although playing completely different roles from their current TV series (Kinnear’s Rake on FOX and Reilly’s Black Box premiering this month on ABC), the couple portray a realistic, healthy but not perfect, Christian couple, and that is enough to praise. The movie too is not perfect, but is a lot better than most would think it would be.