by Ken B.
I’d estimate that sixty to sixty-five percent of Heaven is for Real is a more or less efficient and suitable drama. The remainder is a stretched out and disjointed barrage of mediocrity, doing things such as wallowing in computer generated descriptions of visions of heaven that its real life participants didn’t have the advantage of seeing. While this concept isn’t put into play often, it kind of feels like the movie is either a) canceling itself out, or b) trying too hard to appeal to the on-the-fence viewer on whether or not the events depicted really did happen.
Its source material, the 2010 book of the same name, has become a staple in recent Christian literature. It tells of quite remarkable events; Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear), a pastor in the small Imperial, Nebraska, writes about an episode several years earlier, when his young son Colton (Connor Corum) began to give vivid descriptions of heaven following an emergency appendectomy. Medical records suggest that he never died during the operation, and yet Colton brings up ideas of long-deceased relatives, angels, Jesus, and even a little girl, later revealed to be his sister who had died in the womb. These stories bring more conflict than hope to his father, his mother Sonja (Kelly Reilly), his sister Cassie (Lane Styles), and various residents of his hometown and church, as a struggle of what to do with this information ensues.
When Heaven is for Real wants to be good, it is quite good. When this happens, it’s usually driven by strong performances, particularly from Greg Kinnear in the lead, who shows conviction and doubt in a painfully clear way. A supporting performance from Margo Martindale is also worth noting – she portrays a close family friend who is still coming to terms with tragedies in her own family. Newcomer Corum is more or less adequate as the catalyst of the sudden change of life in Imperial – he comes on camera, says his lines, and leaves, often much to the bewilderment of the adults in the room, considering that most of his character’s dialogue is disclosure of the latest snippet of the afterlife.
On a visual front, the cinematography by veteran DP Dean Semler has a way of making you notice how it’s being done by inserting the occasional bizarre shot – whether it’s a seesaw conversation where the camera is placed in the center, or framing a foggy surrealist scene in one of Colton’s visions where sunlight pours in through the back windows and the front of the church has been replaced by heaven. The effects themselves of that scene (mainly angels and sunlight) are good enough, but they’re obscured by enough digital clouds that it really doesn’t matter.
The main thing that keeps Heaven is for Real from achieving a state of total recommendability is its pacing. Its runtime is average at 100 minutes, but it certainly has a feeling of dragging on, likely due to a recurring feeling of unsettled plotting – following the first act, and around when Colton begins to mention heaven, the movie detaches from the stricter outline it had before, and proceeds to become exhausting, with long stretches where it moves from one scene to another scene, each offering a nugget of drama before moving on, seemingly without a particular rhythm.
One of the people I saw Heaven is for Real with asked me to rate it on a scale of one to ten right after the screening. More or less instinctively, I replied “Seven and a half”, the equivalent of three stars, of course. Seeing the 2.5 star rating here, you can see that I didn’t stick with that voice. The half star change of mind is more or less the result of the fact that you can appreciate the emotional output of a movie before realizing that it didn’t really have an effect on you. Heaven is for Real applies to a specific set of people: Those who embraced Colton Burpo’s story on first sight without issue. If you’re unfamiliar with the text, or read it still had questions with the total accuracy of various smaller details, watching this adaptation won’t give you any answers, and you’ll be more inclined to see a harmless but ultimately largely unimpactful movie.