Ask around long enough among your friends and relatives, and you’ll likely kick up tales suggesting the permeability of whatever shrouds this world from the others we like to believe are adjoining it. My own family, of recent Ozarkian extraction, has had its share of deathbed visions — a grandparent in hospice suddenly speaking to long-gone aunt so-and-so — and of relatives feeling intuitions so sharp and accurate that I doubt even Richard Dawkins could comfortably tell them, “I’m sorry, my dear, but you knowing that your sister was in danger from 100 miles away was just a trick of chemicals, not anything divine.”
Not that such moments aren’t quirks of chemistry, or the flowering together of feeling and memory and faith and electricity. At best, they’re proof that a god or the universe itself takes a personal interest in us. At worst, they’re proof of the sublime comforts our own brains can secrete into us. I believe my people felt these things, and I hope the mystery juice flows when it’s my mind’s turn.
Of course, nobody I know would ask the rest of the world to credit these stories as more than personal anecdotes. That’s not the case with the family at the heart of Heaven Is for Real, the book and film purporting to tell the true story of a four-year-old boy’s trip to heaven. Young Colton Burpo (Connor Corum), in surgery with appendicitis, came perilously close to dying, but managed to pull through. According to his father’s account, Colton afterward expressed awareness of what transpired on Earth during the operation: the community praying, mother making teary phone calls, father yelling at God in the hospital chapel. More confounding still, Colton described meeting a grandfather he had never seen in life, as well as a sister who had “died in mommy’s tummy,” and neither mom nor dad had ever mentioned to the kid an earlier miscarriage.
Also in the movie’s vision are angels and clouds and a Jesus who looks like Kenny Loggins in a hotel bathrobe. As you might fear, the movie’s literalization greatly cheapens the miracle of what our brains do with trauma; the heaven glimpsed on occasion in Heaven Is for Real is a skyscape/rec center infinitely less radiant than the film’s real-world Nebraska, shot with honeyed-over, Chamber of Commerce-pleasing light by Dances with Wolves cinematographer Dean Semler.
This is, after all, a kid’s account of heaven, one that, as a couple skeptics in the movie point out, draws directly upon the very images of heaven the kid has been fed his entire life. His dad (Greg Kinnear) is a preacher; his mom (Kelly Reilly) reads Narnia to him. That’s why Heaven Is for Real must go all in on the how-did-Colton-know-that? angle. Kinnear’s preacher dad, one of those Dockers-sporting new-gospel ministers most comfortable in churches that look like refurbished carpet stores, spends much of the film agonizing over whether or not to believe that Colton got a tour of the afterlife conducted by Jesus himself. It’s the kid’s knowledge of the miscarriage that finally convinces the family that the story is true, and that it must be shared with the world. (The family’s financial travails prove a key plot point, too, but it’s hard to invest in the bill-paying drama of characters based on real people who sold their story to the movies.)
Who knows what the real-life Colton truly saw? Whatever you believe, if even the kid’s parents couldn’t take it on faith until given extraordinary evidence, it seems unfair to ask the rest of us just to accept their word for it. In the end, it’s the very childishness of the vision that is supposed to stir us, the warm hug of an idea of Christianity as only the crayon drawings and sing-alongs of Vacation Bible School. In Colton’s heaven, nobody wears glasses, nobody gets old, and, as a blue-eyed Jesus assures him, “Nobody will ever hurt you.” It seems to be a family reunion set in the cartoon sky that kicks off The Simpsons. Am I crazy to think it might be preferable to dream of such a place than to spend eternity there?
Unlike many of the features targeted to what Hollywood is calling the “faith audience,” the movie is well-acted and shot, often thoughtful and (intentionally) funny. Its portrayal of Christian family life is neither sickly sweet nor dreary — Kinnear and Reilly paw at each other with the wholesome horniness of Rob and Laura Petrie. Simply put, there’s no Kirk Cameron to sink it.
Kinnear, given the chance to preach and parent and doubt, turns in such a serious and layered performance you might dare to hope, on occasion, that the movie won’t end with explicit endorsement of the veracity of mystical visions. He’s great at the mellow, modern preacher-man stuff, gliding through sermons, but also at that Close Encounters–style man-mad-for-meaning stuff, which results in sharply scripted domestic squabbles. The always welcome Margo Martindale and Thomas Haden Church shine in their roles as small-town believers, all humility and decency even when they’re moved to consider voting Kinnear’s preacher out of his job. Martindale and Kinnear share a heartbreaker of a scene at a graveyard, discussing grief and loss with quiet wisdom and real-feeling tears. It’s as strong a portrayal of what faith actually means to the faithful as you’ll ever see in a contemporary movie, a rare depiction of characters working to hold to what they believe rather than having it manifested before them via the magic of screenwriting.
In the howlingly awful climax, of course, everything Martindale’s character struggles to believe in that graveyard scene is offered up as a stone fact, with chintzy special effects. It’s disheartening that a film that labors so hard to convince us that one kid’s familiar vision is real would itself start tossing such visions about like Oprah handing out gift bags. In such moments, it’s not trying to convince you that you should believe; it’s making you feel shitty if you don’t.