A Christian biopic has two major hurdles to overcome:
1. Movies based on someone's life have trouble keeping to a tight narrative structure.
2. Christian movies tend to be more earnest than artistic.
The new film Heaven is for Real struggles with the first, but avoids the second.
The story revolves around Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear), an earnest Midwestern family man with a wife and two young children. He works hard to make ends meet and volunteers at his local fire station. The movie wisely gets us to like his down-to-earth personality before revealing he is also a Reverend for his local church. He is a dynamic and popular preacher who is well-loved by his parishioners. But then he is hit by a string of misfortunes, culminating with his 4-year-old son Colton (Connor Corum) being hospitalized with a life-threatening malady. This causes Todd to doubt. But then Colton begins to talk about his trip to Heaven during his surgery, causing Todd to question everything again.
The movie turns on Colton's vision, but he is not the main character, it's Todd. He is our vehicle into the extraordinary events of the story.
The biggest problem the movie has is structural. The first act goes on way too long with several digressions that feel like they occurred in real life but slow down the narrative too much. Also, a lot of the conflict and resolution has a timing that feels contrived. People make fun of Colton, but it rings a bit hollow. People at Todd's church feel uncomfortable with Colton's vision, but it doesn't feel very organic. It feels like the story needs conflict and so the movie weaves it into the story.
But what pulls this movie above the normal fare is the skill with which it is made. Director Randall Wallace uses all of his skill and talent to make the small farm town of Imperial look heartbreakingly beautiful. Wallace has a knack for finding the epic and spiritual in his other movies like The Man in the Iron Mask and We Were Soldiers, not to mention his Oscar-winning script for Braveheart. He really brings you into Todd's world and Colton's world and makes you feel what they are.
The best part about this movie is Greg Kinnear. He turns in his best performance I've ever seen. Todd feels very real. His interaction with his children, his wife (Kelly Reilly), his best friend (Thomas Hayden Church), and his chief antagonist at the church (Margo Martindale) all feel grounded in reality with a crisp chemistry. Kinnear brings a weary, simple charisma to his role. You like him so easily and you feel his struggle so keenly. When Todd begins to lose his faith it does not feel contrived, but the honest agony of a father. But when he begins to believe his son's stories, it opens a whole new set of problems. Kinnear shows us the complex emotional labyrinth that he has to navigate when he starts believing the unbelievable.
The movie does not water-down the child-like elements of Colton's visions. This is one of the film's strongest elements. It does not try to make Colton preternaturally mature or spiritual. He is a normal 4-year-old who believes he saw something extraordinary. But those visions are consistent with a child's mind. He stories of angels and colors and horses and rainbows feel like something out of a cartoon. And yet Todd is drawn deeper into Colton's stories because of their simple honesty. He feels foolish believing them and yet he can't deny them either. And this pain is seen in every crease of Kinnear's face. He shines in this role in a way that is rarely seen in Christian films.
And the movie does have some wonderful reflections on faith in real life. When Colton goes into the hospital, his mother calls friends for prayers and we see a community come together in faith that we recognize in our daily lives but is rarely see in film. It also shows how confidence in faith can lead to arrogance. Sometimes its the struggles that humble us and bring us to a deeper faith. The movie reminds of a something CS Lewis wrote in A Grief Observed.
Todd's life has to be torn down so God can build it into something better.
And I also love the way the movie does not make the vision of Heaven to PC and generic. It is based very much on salvation through Jesus. Todd himself addresses the discomfort our society has with devotion to Jesus head on in a way that is immensely satisfying.
So if you want to see a beautifully shot movie, with a fantastic leading role, and an uplifting message, check out this movie.
4 out of 5 stars.