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Christian moviegoers already turned God’s Not Dead into a surprise hit this year, and even more should flock to Heaven Is For Real, a movie made on a bigger budget and drawn from a best-selling book about a young boy’s near-death experiences of the afterlife. This picture from Braveheart screenwriter and Secretariat director Randall Wallace is unlikely to convert any skeptics, but if they wander into the multiplex, they’ll find that that the prettily photographed sermon goes down easily.
The low-pressure approach of the filmmakers is very much the same tactic taken by small-town pastor Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear) in his orations to his congregation. He dresses casually and addresses his flock without any hectoring or fire-and-brimstone declaiming. (The ethnic diversity of the small Midwestern congregation, however, seems more politically correct than geographically credible.) But when Todd’s four-year-old son Colton (Connor Corum) is rushed to the hospital with a ruptured appendix, the family’s world threatens to collapse. Colton survives emergency surgery, but he returns to the land of the living with tales of the visions of heaven he experienced, including an encounter with Jesus himself. Todd is initially skeptical, but when Colton recounts details about dead family members whom he never knew, Todd begins to accept the boy’s visions. Yet other inhabitants of the town as well as members of the church executive board are more skeptical, fearing that the boy’s tales from the other side are turning their congregation into something of a circus sideshow.
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That’s about the extent of the drama in this rather attenuated film. True believers will find the film’s evocations of heaven quite enough to sustain their interest, but other viewers — even those who might be curious about the film’s thesis — will search in vain for a more compelling narrative. Margo Martindale plays one of the church leaders who is concerned about the notoriety the boy’s tales attract, but this story strand isn’t well-developed and is resolved far too easily. The overwrought melodrama that marred God’s Not Dead is luckily absent, but Heaven desperately needs a greater sense of urgency.
Some of this is provided by Todd’s financial hardships, which add intriguing and unexpected dimension to the life of a contemporary country pastor. Todd can’t make a living as a preacher, so he works in construction and also as a volunteer fireman. A scene in which he has to tell a hospital administrator that he can’t afford to pay his whopping medical bill gives an unexpectedly sharp edge to the movie.
The grittier realities of life in small-town America are obviously not what this film wants to highlight, yet those glimpses add some valued texture to the film. The images of heaven are too antiseptic to prove very persuasive to nonbelievers, but the film does achieve moments of spiritual grandeur in its more realistic scenes. Oscar-winning cinematographer Dean Semler (Dances With Wolves) brings a breathtaking sense of widescreen wonder to the Nebraska prairie vistas (actually shot in Canada), and these images convey a more subtle sense of transcendent possibilities than the heavenly interludes with gossamer angels.
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Working with Semler, Wallace achieves some visual epiphanies, and he also draws effectively natural performances from the actors. Kinnear is always believably human, and as his wife, British actress Kelly Reilly (who made a strong impression as Denzel Washington‘s love interest in Flight) has an appealing earthiness. Martindale has a couple of moving moments, though Oscar nominee Thomas Haden Church has a disappointingly thin role as the town banker. One of the reasons the film works as well as it does is because of the casting of Corum as young Colton. Unlike many child actors his age, Corum never milks the audience. He is appealingly understated, which shows the tact of director Wallace. But aside from any acting ability, his angelic face cannot help but strengthen the movie’s thesis. Wallace made a lot of shrewd decisions to sock this movie home, but he can’t entirely overcome the dramatic thinness of the original material. The faithful may well be weeping by the film’s conclusion, while others will remain more detached, feeling little except gratitude that they haven’t been bludgeoned into believing.
Opens: Wednesday, April 16 (TriStar Pictures).
Cast: Greg Kinnear, Kelly Reilly, Connor Corum, Thomas Haden Church, Margo Martindale, Lane Styles, Jacob Vargas, Thanya Romero, Nancy Sorel.
Director: Randall Wallace.
Screenwriters: Randall Wallace, Christopher Parker.
Based on the book by: Todd Burpo with Lynn Vincent.
Producers: Joe Roth, T.D. Jakes.
Executive producers: Sue Baden-Powell, Sam Mercer, Derrick Williams.
Director of photography: Dean Semler.
Production designer: Arv Greywal.
Music: Nick Glennie-Smith.
Costume designer: Michael T. Boyd.
Editor: John Wright.
Rated PG, 100 minutes.
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