Spirituality Over Dogma Uplifts ‘Heaven Is for Real’

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CHICAGO – It would be easy to dismiss “Heaven Is for Real,” given that it is based on the visions of the afterlife by a child, that just happens to coincide perfectly with Christian doctrine (Jesus, Angels, etc.). But there is more to this film in the sincerity of its spirituality, and it succeeds with that inspiration.

The key was establishing a viable authenticity to the atmosphere of the vision, and get the right cast to deliver it, which director Randall Wallace (“Secretariat,” “We Were Soldiers”) was able to accomplish. He creates a hometown America that is part of the scenario, a luxurious and spacious hinterland of unyielding peace. The juxtaposition of the otherworldly garden of the boy’s vision with the wonder of earth creates a “heaven” that is for real, if we open our eyes. That spirit of simplicity becomes the kingdom.

Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear) is a church pastor in a small, rural town, but to make ends meet he has a business, coaches the local high school wrestling team and is part of the volunteer fire department. His financial woes weigh heavily, even with support from his wife Sonja (Kelly Reilly). To make matters worse, his young son Colton (Connor Corum) needs emergency surgery when his appendix ruptures.

Greg Kinnear, Connor Corum
Skeptical: Todd (Greg Kinnear) Questions His Son Colton (Connor Corum) in ‘Heaven Is for Real’’
Photo credit: TriStar Pictures

When the boy recovers, he begins to tell his father that he visited heaven. When Todd asks Colton for more details, the revelations the boy gives are eye opening – including meeting a long dead relative and an unborn sister. Colton also describes angels, Jesus and the cloud view of a Christian paradise. This riles up the town, threatens Todd’s status as a preacher and tests the faith of all involved.

This is, of course, based on the Todd Burpo best seller, and does take liberties with a supposed true story, to the point of creating a new path for the vision. There is the dogma of the Christian ideology, but it is also mirrored with the elements of what we have on earth to fulfill our spirituality. The way the film is able to balance that – and it’s not to say that there isn’t some gooey sap along the way – is the ultimate strength in the telling. Whether you believe or don’t believe what the kid saw, the questioning of the possibility does provide some answers for the community in the film.

There is an emotional connection for the relationships in the film – father to son, husband to wife, friend to friend and paster to flock – that again forges past the dogma, and those relationships are as glowing as the cinematography (by Dean Semler). These souls, like all of us, are searching for meaning, and the events of the boy’s vision give them pause to reflect on it. There are no miraculous testifying in this film, only a bit of hope.

The cast of veteran actors lend credence to the event. Greg Kinnear has that special sincerity and humility as the put-upon preacher, and delivers the climatic sermon with truth and grace. His best buddy Jay (Thomas Haden Church) adds some much needed acidity, and actress Margo Martindale – as a woman in mourning for her dead soldier son – experienced the right amount of redemption after dismissing the initial reports.

Greg Kinnear, Kelly Reilly
Todd Seek Counsel from Wife Sonja (Kelly Reilly) in ‘Heaven Is for Real’’
Photo credit: TriStar Pictures

There were a few pieces of the story that might have you screaming for the exits. It’s very clean in this town, and the syrup from that cleanliness begs for even more Thomas Haden Church. Kelly Reilly as wife Sonja is quite the attractive wife, and the costumer makes sure – very strangely at times for a church wife – that the audience realizes Ms. Reilly’s assets. The planning on that decision had to be on purpose, and does add a additional message to go along with the holiness of a heaven’s vision.

The ending of the film is the strength, a reminder that our time here is short and what we need to learn is all around us. Whether that is accomplished through religion, secular relationships or watching the grass grow, the contemplative life that brings this contentment IS the real heaven.

“Heaven Is for Real” opens everywhere on April 16th. Featuring Greg Kinnear, Kelly Reilly, Thomas Haden Church, Margo Martindale and Connor Corum. Screenplay by Randall Wallace and Chris Parker. Directed by Randall Wallace. Rated “PG

HollywoodChicago.com senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Senior Staff Writer

© 2014 Patrick McDonald, HollywoodChicago.com

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