You don't even have to get to the "Real" in the title to know that a movie called Heaven Is For Real is going to have a classic critics-hate/audiences-love kind of split, and sure enough, this movie currently sits at 46/72 on Rotten Tomatoes (far milder than the 15/85 split for God's Not Dead).
Interesting to note that this is the third (and most successful/mainstream) top 30 movie this year on the topic of Christianity. That's kind of cool, though it would be cooler if the movie and its message (right there in the title) were uncontroversial.
I don't say this as a believer; I say it as a sane person. If a child tells you he's gone to Heaven, well, that's what he's telling you. If you find that convincing enough to write a book about and talk about, well, that's also nothing for people to get hysterical about.
But, alas, we don't live in sane times. A person can suggest that increasing poverty in the name of fairness is a good thing, and be elected President, or write a bestselling book no one reads. But suggest there actually, factually is something that a whole bunch of people at least pay lip service to, and everybody's gotta have an opinion.
I, actually, do not gotta have one. I particularly don't when I go to the movies. (Or I try not to. You can judge how successful I am.) I'm looking for the story, and this is a good (though not flawless) one. I think it'd make an interesting double-feature with the Belgian film Broken Circle Breakdown which dealt with similar themes from an a-religious (but not a-spiritual standpoint).
The story is that of a good-hearted, unassuming pastor/tradesman/family man Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear) and his hot wife (Mary Reilly, who we've seen a lot recently in Chinese Puzzle and also A Single Shot, though for some reason my review doesn't mention her) and their beautiful family out in God's Country (Nebraska), living a great life (though hard-pressed for cash) when their son gets seriously ill.
The community rallies around Todd and Colton (newcomer Conor Corum) with prayers and such, but of course the problem comes when he gets well. And then starts talking about Heaven. Like, the real Heaven. In great detail. With details that he could not know otherwise (at least his father perceives it as such).
Which goes back to my original point: My kid comes to me and tells me about Heaven, I'm going to think that's pretty cool. (Which is why they won't make a movie about me.) Todd, on the other hand, experiences a kind of existential crisis. And even more, so does most of the town, to the point where the Burpo's viability is threatened.
This tension is what makes a good movie. They all believe in Jesus and Heaven in theory but they aren't going to say His name too loudly or deal in concrete representations of the afterlife.
It'd be easy to say that they're hypocritical, but I think it's more accurate to say that people's faith goes on autopilot. It's easy to water down faith into a dogma—hell, people do that with politics, which is just gross—or into abstract principles that can be debated in a sterile fashion with no connection to real life (people do that with politics, too, of course).
Experiencing faith as a constant matter, having it inform everything you do, living, breathing, wrestling with it: That's hard. (And the theme of one of my favorite films, Machine Gun Preacher.)
What's also hard is telling the truth. And that's the other big struggle: Colton has a simple faith based on personal experience, and it moves his father greatly, but testifying to that is embarrassing, awkward, and it makes people uncomfortable.
You don't have to be religious for that message to resonate: The ability to see the truth and then to fearlessly report what we see is the greatest struggle of our lives. (I think art critics have a particularly hard time with this.)
It's not a perfect movie by a long shot. Writer/Director Randall Wallace (Secretariat, We Were Soldiers) lets it go slack a bit at the beginning of the second act. We're not sure what direction the movie's going to go, and it feels like he isn't either. (The problem may be that the drama of the first act is so heavy, there's no way to recapture the momentum after it's resolved.)
And the characters—well, I didn't fully understand them. Maybe they're more archetypal to small-town Christians, but I didn't always get their motivations.
Other than that, though, a solid flick. The Boy and The Flower both liked it a lot, with The Boy much preferring it over God's Not Dead. The Flower, meanwhile, preferred that more parable influenced story to this based-on-a-true story.
Kinnear is completely cleansed of his early career smarminess, which is important here. Kelly Reilly is becoming one of my favorite actresses, fitting into whatever role as if she were born to it. (And this role is diametrically opposed to her shallow, self-centered Chinese Puzzle role.) Thomas Haden Church and Margo Martindale do good work, too.
Casa 'strom sides with the audience, once again.