A few weeks ago, the faith-based film God’s Not Dead was released and has been doing wildly better than expected for an indie drama about the debate over whether God is real. But I think that debate aspect is where the interest in the film ultimately comes from. The film’s not a preachy soliloquy attempting to convert everyone to Christianity; no, it’s an exploration on the merits of His existence that discusses the validity of both scientific fact and faith-based reasoning. Though it does have a religious bend to it, the filmmakers don’t try to force you to believe, they just hope that maybe you might think twice before simply refuting the possibility. The same type of exploration is the core of the new film, Heaven Is For Real, and like with God’s Not Dead, it does a fine job in creating a thought-provoking study behind the merits of whether Heaven itself truly exists.
Based on the novel written by Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear), Heaven Is For Real is about a man who begins to struggle with his faith when his son, Colton (Connor Corum), reveals that he visited Heaven after having a near-death experience. What I found most interesting about this scenario is that it wasn’t some huge tragedy, such as a car-wreck or fall from an eight-story building, that nearly ends Colton’s life; it’s actually a burst appendix that sends the boy to the hospital.
It’s in this mundane and ordinary situation that makes the boy’s journey so much more important, as this natural occurrence could have been avoided had Todd and his wife, Sonja (Kelly Reilly), taken Colton to the hospital when he first started to get sick. The reason they didn’t was because Todd had experienced his own medical maladies several weeks prior, and they couldn’t afford to take him to the hospital over a simple flu, which is what they first suspected it was. Only when his temperature continued to rise did they consider the possibility that something else was wrong, and got him to the hospital just in time to save his life and allow for his existential journey.
Kinnear is in fine form as Todd, a small-town pastor who has brought life and flavor to the local church. The man is kind, funny, inspirational and supportive, especially when is comes to his family — a family that includes most of the townsfolk, whom he’s always willing to help in any way (including volunteering as both a firefighter and the high-school wrestling coach), but can’t rise above his own pride when it comes to others seeking to help him when he needs it most.
When Todd’s faith is tested after his son’s experience goes public, Kinnear does a fantastic job covering his fears, inadequacies and questions with his public persona, desperately trying to understand the meaning behind it all without losing who he is as a husband, a father, a friend and the hand that others turn to for guidance. It’s an exploration that he’s never had to deal with before, but as with anything God does, it’s ultimately a test to help Todd discover how courageous one man can be, and how he can overcome the challenges he’s put on himself in order to learn a deeper truth.
But no matter how good Kinnear was, he can only do so much. The final scene, in which Todd gives an impassioned speech about the lessons he learned from his son’s experience, is, unfortunately, a little anti-climactic. For a movie that spends a great deal of time testing both sides of faith, digging into what is real and what is imaginary, I expected a much more complex and thought-provoking sequence. All we’re given, though, is a short speech that basically sums up the movie, falling short of giving any life or passion to the convictions that Todd, and the filmmakers in general, were more than likely trying to convey.
The reason for this stems mostly from the direction of Randall Wallace. Having directed several great films, such as We Were Soldiers and Secretariat, I expected much more from the structural integrity of the film. The pace was well-executed and delivered a soothing, heartfelt experience, however, there were several scenes, such as when Todd’s daughter, Cassie (Lane Styles), punches a couple of boys for making fun of her brother, that felt extremely stiff because of a staleness in the execution. On top of that, there are a few editing choices that fail to capture your imagination the way they should have, and it feels as if Todd’s revelation comes about too fast — mostly due to the clunkiness of several scenes that proceed it.
For example, the scene that shows Colton’s visit to heaven that gives us the visual of what he saw, felt incredibly disingenuous. I haven’t read the book, so in all respect, this could have been exactly how the real four-year-old Colton described it, but the way that Wallace handles the scene feels far too impersonal and doesn’t allow for any personality. Wallace chose to use a literal interpretation of the boy’s experience rather than a more figurative embodiment of what Heaven might feel like, turning what could have been a thought-provoking sequence into insincere artificiality.
Aside from that, the movie does work well in debating whether heaven is in fact real, or simply a medical anomaly that happens when your body tries to relax you as you near death. Whether you believe in Heaven or not, Wallace delivers a solid exploration of what Heaven means to different people, and doesn’t try to convince you one way or the other. Heaven will always be in debate so long as we continue to try and understand what happens when we die, and as Heaven Is For Real gives everyone a glimpse into the possibility that it does exist, it also provides a interesting exploration of the dedication of faith that’s needed to accept what we can’t understand.
My Grade: A-
Next week, new movies include Brick Mansions, The Other Woman and The Quiet Ones. If you would like to see a review of this, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.