Finally saw Heaven is for Real on DVD, and was quite pleasantly surprised. As a film person, I approach the viewing of most films with enthusiasm, looking to find something of worth in even the worst films. As a Christian, I usually approach the newest “Christian” film or film dealing with genuine, Bible-believing Christians with some hesitation, even doing a little pre-viewing cringing now and then.
The reason? Most films made by Jesus-loving Christians don’t have the production values we see in mainstream cinema, and sincerity doesn’t equate to art. And the films made by mainstream cinema dealing with genuine Christian believers tend to get most things wrong. and land somewhere between dissonantly off-kilter and downright infuriating.
Heaven is for Real is a happy exception. Its reach most definitely exceeds its grasp, but what it tries for, it gets right most of the time. The triumph of something quite different like The Avengers was in creating a world where all these people (with all their backgrounds and wildly divergent personalities and skills) could co-exist in our world, and we could accept everything we saw on screen. The triumph of Heaven is for Real is creating a world of real Christians struggling with an experience that’s just beyond the comfort zone.
This is more of an achievement than has been noted. If you’re familiar with the book, you might think the child who “went to heaven” while undergoing surgery is the lead. It’s actually the father, Todd Burpo, a pastor played by an excellent Greg Kinnear, who is the central figure and faces the main struggle in the film—processing what his son has been telling him about hearing angels, meeting Jesus, etc. He’s a pastor who has to incorporate what he’s hearing into his belief system and his sermons, all while the media is beginning to show its interest in a boy they might want to exploit and he is determined to protect.
Todd preaches like a real preacher, not a Hollywood version. He’s not boring, or hypocritical, or possessed of a particularly singular preaching style. (Full disclosure: I preach myself, but am not close to the father’s style here). He’s in love with his wife, and it’s more refreshing than one can imagine to see a genuine believer act normal, be in love with his wife, and have a vibrant (if discretely insinuated) sex life. He works hard, struggles financially, and has real friends who equally support him and bust his chops as friends do.
Connor Corum as Colton, the son who nearly dies on the operating table, is a find. He’s not TV-precocious, not smart-mouthed, and never attempts to be adorable (though he is). His stories about heaven are explained as straightforwardly as if he were describing what happened in class that day. The special effects sequences of his experiences go right to the line of believability, and almost cross over into corny. But how does one visualize the ineffable for today’s audience? Happily, the film presents the images as Colton describes and experienced them, and doesn’t ask us to take them all literally, or as what heavenly things really look or sound like.
In addition to creating a real world that embraces this life and the next at the same time, the screenplay handles the issue of what Colton saw rather brilliantly. It’s not Colton’s struggle at all—he knows what he saw, and believes in it. It’s Todd’s struggle of how to contextualize what he believes his son saw; was it real, did it really give insight into what heaven is like, and if so, what does one do with that? If it wasn’t real, how could Colton have known things he could never have known? The reality of heaven, in spite of the title, is not the issue here. The protagonists (and even those slightly stepping temporarily into the antagonist role) all believe in an afterlife. The question is what to do with Colton’s experience and how to interpret it.
Happily, we have some solid support in the acting category. Oscar-nominated Thomas Haden Church and Emmy-winning Margo Martindale bring depth and realism to their roles as friends of the family. Church brings the humor and Martindale the pathos, but both are fully fleshed-out characters that add immeasurably to creating and sustaining the film’s world. Kelly Reilly (Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows) has a rather thankless role as the wife who is supportive yet stretched to the brink by all that’s happening to her family. She is fine most of the time, yet a bit strident and edgy at other times.
While the creation of that world is by far the film’s greatest achievement, this is not a great film. The story is at turns jumpy and too slow, and the film’s focus seems to wander from father to son and back again. It’s 10 degrees from Hallmark pretty at times, and some of the camera angles are questionable at best.
But this is the first recent film with current high production values—especially the acting—that has created a world where the central characters are people of faith who are recognizable and real. These are not some saccharine, unreal people that don’t struggle with life, nor are they some mysterious, weird group of otherworldly hate-mongers just this side of American Horror Story. This is the world most Americans live in or at least recognize, and the film makes room for them, their real life, and their real faith. Belief in Jesus, the Bible and the afterlife are part and parcel of the world of the film, and are not held up to suspicion or ridicule.
This may well be part of the reason that this both “real” and “faith-based” film has made close to $100 million. The world of real people of real Christian faith has resonated with many people, who haven’t been able to relate to the Christians they’ve seen on the screen in the last, say, 50 years. Resonance is an underappreciated factor, both for critics and for audiences. If the subject of a film resonates for whatever reason with critics, it is likely to get better reviews than it might deserve. If they can’t connect with the world of the story—as is definitely the case with most film critics and film such as Heaven is for Real—then the film simply doesn’t seem as “good” as other films.
Dallas Buyers Club, for instance, resonated with many critics because of its subject matter and for its excellent performances. But many people couldn’t find the connection; hence the less-than-stellar box office ($27 million). Gravity resonated with techies (among many others); hence the many (deserved) awards. 12 Years a Slave resonated with those looking for that “great” film of the year, and the great direction, performances, and especially the subject matter, made that wonderful film resonate with those that give out the most important awards.
Resonance has little to do with quality, but when a certain level of cinematic quality has been attained, it makes the difference between a film that one connects with and could recommend and one that doesn’t make that connection and ends up being seen by fewer people. For people who believe in Jesus, or God, or heaven, or the afterlife, Heaven is for Real is resonant, and the missteps and weaknesses are not strong enough to distract that kind of person from what resonates, making the viewing a valuable experience. For the one who doesn’t believe, one can admire the performances and the look of the film, but it can seem foolish and something for the “guns and religion” crowd, using that most condescending and arrogant of recent political quotes.
What a great Rorschach test this film is! For the kind of believer described above, take a look and see a world that you can identify with—one that’s real, painful and faith-filled all at the same time. Consider it a visit to a land you’ll recognize. For the rest, take a look into the best recent filmic presentation of real people that happen to be serious Christians. Consider it an anthropological study.