“I was alone, but I wasn’t afraid.” With those words, 4-year-old Colton Burpo begins to tell his father Todd what he saw as he lay on an operating table as doctors worked feverishly to save his life. He sees the doctors working. He sees his parents. And he sees heaven. What Colton reveals of heaven sets off something of a firestorm within his town, and especially within his family, as his father—a small-town preacher, fireman and businessman—tries to come to grips with his own questions of faith and what is really real.
Based on a true story from the best-selling 2010 book of the same name, “Heaven Is For Real” * is a beautiful film from a cinematography standpoint, with lots of sweeping views of Nebraskan farmland and crystal-clear starry nights (though according to the credits, it was shot in Manitoba, Canada). The glimpses of heaven that we see are surprisingly subtle. Many times when Hollywood attempts to deal with the topic of heaven, we get over-the-top, swirling dry-ice-induced fog and puffy clouds, surrounding Christmas-tree angels with harps and golden wings. If you were planning to avoid this movie because you want to avoid the typical campy, clichéd images we’ve become accustomed to, you can be rest assured you won’t find them here. The closest it comes is the heavenly choir singing, but even that is offered up with some humor when young Colton requests his favorite song. That draws giggles from the choir, but I won’t give away what the song is—just go see the movie.
Academy Award-nominated and Emmy Award winning actor Greg Kinnear plays the hard-working Todd Burpo. He is believable and gives a poignant performance as a pastor facing multiple personal crises—then has to decide what to do when his son begins to tell him about his visit to The Other Side, and of meeting loved ones he could never have known. His scenes with the young actor who plays Colton, 6-year-old Connor Corum (making his film debut), are some of the most memorable and touching ones. The young actor, with his sweet, innocent face, delivers his lines in such a way that it reminded me of why Jesus said we should all be as little children in matters of faith. Colton tells his dad everything and everyone he saw in heaven in a very matter-of-fact way. Sort of like, believe me or don’t…but this is what happened.
Of course Todd, being a preacher, wants to believe him. After all, he’s told his flock about heaven many times, but when he finally decides to tell the congregation, the results aren’t what you might expect. Each one, after all, has his or her own issues and struggles to really believe.
In fact this is one of the many strong points of the film. I like how it showed the ups and downs of “church-going people”. When Colton needs emergency surgery, his mom (played by Kelly Reilly) calls one church member, who then sees to it that the word is spread to pray for this family. Later on, after Colton’s ordeal and his stories of heaven get around, some of Todd’s faithful congregants become uncomfortable with this literal heaven Colton describes. It should give some encouragement to people—whether you’re a church-goer or not— to know that even a pastor, or a pastor’s wife or a church board member can have a crisis of faith when faced with the reality that heaven is real.
It’s easy enough to talk about heaven and God when they just seem like stories to make you feel good from time to time. But what do you do when life happens, and you’re faced with impending death, or in this case, near death? When you hear the real experiences of real people like Colton Burpo, or you sit beside the bed of a dying loved one, what do you believe then?
I saw “Heaven Is For Real”* yesterday, on Good Friday. Even though it was the early afternoon, it played to a packed theater full of people of all ages. Most people, whether they believe in God or not, have a yearning for something beyond themselves, and a hope that what we can see in this world isn’t all there is to life. It was appropriate this film was released during the Easter season. It inspires, encourages and challenges you to open your eyes, to live without fear…to have faith.
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