The main point of “Heaven is for Real” is contained in its title, so you know where you’re going with this one before you even buy the ticket. The film is based on the best-selling nonfiction book by Todd Burpo, a Nebraska pastor whose 4-year-old son, Colton, had a near-death experience during emergency surgery and came back talking about a green-eyed Jesus, laughing angels and all sorts of real-world stuff that there’s no way he could have known about except if he saw it through some mystical experience (or was coached by his dad, as some cynics might think).

Now I’m no Christian, so the Jesus particulars of young Colton’s purported story don’t leave me moved one way or another, but near-death experiences are a fairly well-documented phenomenon, and I am a firm believer in the notion that there are things out there that we just can’t explain rationally. Which I suppose is a roundabout way of saying I’m halfway sympathetic to the film.

The Norman Rockwell vision of small-town America conjured up by director and co-writer Randall Wallace — best known for scripting “Braveheart” and directing “Secretariat” — comes as no surprise. I’ve met Wallace and he’s a straight-up old-fashioned Southern gentleman, but in a good way; he even gives the film’s token secular atheist a fair shake. (Unlike “God’s Not Dead”.)

Heaven is for Real (Tengoku wa, Honto ni Aru)
Director Randall Wallace
Run Time 99 minutes
Language English
Opens Dec. 13

Wallace’s vision is one of community, and the film’s tension comes when that is broken by Todd’s belief in his son’s mystical experience, even when confronted by the doubters within his own congregation (ably played by Thomas Haden Church and Margo Martindale) who see it as some kind of cheap sensationalism.

Connor Corum is almost unbearably cherubic as Colton; I half expected a CGI halo to appear over his head mid-film. Gregg Kinnear does his best to portray Rev. Burpo as a religious man torn in his beliefs as he attempts to comprehend the incomprehensible. Yet, an agnostic like myself can only wonder why that struggle came so late to him, since so much of religion is based on faith in the incomprehensible and miraculous.

The film does seem to elicit a rather obvious question: If Christians all believe in heaven, then why is it considered crazy talk to say that you have seen the light and been there? The Bible is full of people having visions, but have one today and watch out.

Depictions of Colton’s visions are light on CGI and more traditional — angelic choirs, beaming light through clouds, etc. — than the florid psychedelia of “The Lovely Bones” or “What Dreams May Come.” Perhaps the most important thing to note about “Heaven is for Real” is that it made money — a lot of it. With a budget of only $12 million and a B-list cast, it grossed over $90 million in the U.S. alone, which shows that despite the hits so-called liberal Hollywood turns out, there is a serious pent-up heartland demand for good, solid Christian films based on old-school small-town values. Looks like another front has opened up in the culture wars.

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