After the contentious likes of “Noah” and “God’s Not Dead,” Hollywood’s season of Christian-themed cinema continues in relatively innocuous fashion with “Heaven Is for Real,” a bland, earnest yet appreciably restrained adaptation of Midwestern minister Todd Burpo’s inspirational bestseller about his young son’s miraculous glimpse of eternity. Audiences not inclined to suspend their disbelief, let alone take a leap of faith, will have no use for the film’s corn-fed sincerity or its clean-scrubbed celestial visions. Still, it’s something of a relief to report that the movie isn’t quite the vomitous bucket of spiritual saccharine the ads would suggest, and those willing to engage may be pleasantly surprised by some of its understated virtues: a carefully open-minded appeal to skeptics, a wry sense of humor that wards off sententiousness at key moments, and a fine cast of name actors (led by Greg Kinnear) who bring much-needed class and conviction to a thin, tidy little story of what God giveth and taketh away.
That Christian moviegoers have had more to choose from recently (and with still more on the horizon, including “Left Behind” and “Exodus”) should do little to diminish the faith-based appeal of “Heaven Is for Real,” which is opening smack in the middle of Holy Week — prime B.O. real estate that Sony/TriStar should capitalize on handsomely. Marking the first joint venture between reliable hitmaker Joe Roth and megachurch leader T.D. Jakes, the movie stands to benefit from church-fueled word of mouth, a robust social-media profile and, perhaps most of all, the thousands of readers who embraced Burpo’s simple yet not uncontroversial account of his son Colton’s out-of-body experience, which left the 4-year-old convinced he’d visited heaven and sat in Jesus’ lap.
Screenwriters Randall Wallace (who also directed) and Christopher Parker have the good sense to work their way up to that epiphany gradually, immersing us first in the rhythms of life in the small prairie town of Imperial, Neb. Todd Burpo (Kinnear) works as a volunteer firefighter, a high-school wrestling coach and a pastor at Crossroads Wesleyan Church, where he preaches eloquent, heartfelt sermons every Sunday while his wife, Sonja (Kelly Reilly, “Flight”), and their two young children, Cassie (Lane Styles) and Colton (Connor Corum), look on in quiet adoration. Theirs is a happy but hardly perfect existence: Todd’s various jobs barely manage to pay the bills, and there are a few less-than-subtle hints of some painful past tragedy that he and Sonja haven’t entirely shaken off. Things grow worse when Todd endures a Job-like series of physical ordeals, breaking his leg and developing severe kidney stones (the character’s real-life breast-cancer scare seems to have been left on the cutting-room floor), which put him out of work for a long stretch.
Yet a far graver medical emergency strikes young Colton, who is rushed to the hospital with a ruptured appendix and little chance of survival, occasioning a solemn montage of closed eyes and bowed heads that begins with his parents and fans out to include other members of the church community. Their prayers are answered: After 11th-hour surgery, Colton makes a full recovery. But he’s not quite the same little boy he was before, as becomes clear from his subsequent running commentary about what transpired on the operating table. A flashback filmed from a soul’s-eye view shows him floating high above his own unconscious body — and then, before you can say “The Lovely Bones” or “Enter the Void,” he’s walking into a church much like Crossroads Wesleyan, where he’s greeted by a choir of singing angels and, in the nail-scarred flesh, Jesus himself (Mike Mohrhardt, his face strategically hidden from view).
Colton recounts all this not with precocious, wide-eyed wonder, but rather with a rambling matter-of-factness that at times drifts into boredom or impatience — a tactic that, along with a refreshingly non-cloying performance from button-cute newcomer Corum and several instances of offbeat humor, helps to neutralize some if not all of the cheese factor. Whether they count as visions, hallucinations or psychic remnants of an actual experience, the recurring images of Colton’s heaven can’t help but feel overly kitschified and sanitized, all puffy clouds, billowing robes and blinding flashes of white. It’s a dully immaculate rendering of the afterlife that induces a flicker of curiosity about what the movie’s version of hell would look like: less sparkly and lemon-fresh, perhaps, but also more interesting by a mile.
But hell never really enters the movie’s moral equation, as Colton, drawing out his story over many tellings and retellings (in a way that makes it impossible not to suspect a modicum of dramatic embellishment), advances a reassuring theory of the cosmos in which our dead loved ones are waiting to be reunited with us for all eternity. It’s the guileless simplicity of this account, marbled with details and insights that no child could possibly fabricate (shades of “The Shining”), that compels Todd to believe his son is telling the truth. Soon he begins sharing Colton’s story with others, including a journalist (Julia Arkos), an unbelieving child therapist (Nancy Sorel), and eventually his own parishioners, whose generally bewildered reactions open a rift between Colton and the church.
It’s in exploring that rift — and acknowledging the difficulty even the most faithful viewers may have in swallowing the material — that “Heaven Is for Real” feels most persuasive, honest and dramatically substantial. The film is fortunate to boast sterling character actors like Thomas Haden Church and Margo Martindale, both playing respected church elders who bring a healthy dash of skepticism to the proceedings (Martindale, in particular, manages to suggest a fully developed character while effectively functioning as a mouthpiece for all the bitter cynics in the audience). As Todd’s wife and Colton’s mother, Reilly expresses her character’s own doubts and reservations to more plaintively emotional effect. And Kinnear, who fits right into this homespun Nebraska setting while also standing slightly apart from it, is perfectly cast as the salt-of-the-earth reverend — clearly driven by his spiritual passion and his love for his family, yet with a zeal that borders on obsession as he follows his son’s testimony to its sentimental conclusions. (Spoiler alert: There will be hugs.)
Depending on your particular perspective on the spiritual bromides being prescribed here, the measured conclusions of “Heaven Is for Real” may induce anything from a sigh of relief to a roll of the eyes. Wallace, a reliable pro at turning out stolid, conventionally stirring entertainments (“Secretariat,” “We Were Soldiers,” the screenplay for “Braveheart”), has made no secret of the strong Christian influence on his body of work, and he’s clearly out to satisfy his target audience while remaining somewhat accessible to those outside it. It’s an admirable impulse that nonetheless leaves you feeling the film has somehow missed its mark, copping out with a mealymouthed, almost relativistic reading of the cosmic conundrum it has presented us with: Your heaven, my heaven, let’s call the whole thing off.
Making a handsome stand-in for Nebraska farm country, the film’s Winnipeg locations are lushly photographed in widescreen by Dean Semler, though the film lingers perhaps a beat too long on gently rustling stalks of wheat for its own good. Reilly’s quavering rendition of one of the great hymns, “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” offers a lovely respite from the relentless assault of Nick Glennie-Smith’s score.