Heaven is for Real
In Heaven, everything is fine. The thesis of "Heaven is for Real" is that once you realize that, everything is fine on Earth, too.
Director Wallace Randall’s film follows the Burpo family -- Pastor Todd (Greg Kinnear), wife Sonja (Kelly Reilly), son Colton and daughter Cassie -- as they face up to the promise of the film’s title. Coltan comes out of a life-threatening surgery convinced that he visited Heaven while he was knocked out on anesthetic, and he’s got tons of details about long-dead family members to "prove" it. For Pastor Todd, this fosters an internal conflict he’d avoided all his life -- he’s forced to acknowledge his faith and the implications of his beliefs literally, rather than just spiritually. This is a movie about a man who’s always felt spiritually fulfilled facing up to the fact that faith demands more of a man than just spiritual fulfillment.
The title of the movie tells you what you’re in for before it begins -- it tells you that Colton’s visions are real, and that Pastor Todd will begin to accept his fate with total sincerity. It tells you that this is just another Church movie. Still, there’s something that separates "Heaven is for Real" from its peers, something that almost makes it more than just a work of propaganda. It’s this: For most of the film, Colton’s beliefs are retained in his own head. Whenever Wallace gives us a vision of Heaven, it’s framed so that it clearly arises from Colton’s brain (visions are often preceded by a zoom into the actor’s face), and is not meant to be taken "literally." It doesn’t last the whole movie, but for a while Wallace presents Colton’s visions as the projections of an unreliable character -- he leaves it to his audience to determine whether or not Heaven actually is for real. Inside a devoutly religious film, accentuating the silence of God in that way -- talking about the fact that we can never really know what lies beyond, suggesting that maybe religious belief is just a mistakenly interpreted vision -- feels like nothing less than a daring directorial act.
That decision also helps to give the film a small modicum of tension. In fact, with just a few well-placed cuts and a week or so of reshoots, you could easily edit "Heaven is for Real" into a low-budget horror movie! All the standards of the genre are here: We have a family beset by tension, locked into one location in a remote area. We have a boy vexed by visions that may or may not be coming from an unexplained metaphysical force. We have a cheap visual aesthetic. We even have slow, creeping zoom shots layered all over the picture. (At one point, Wallace frames Colton in the corner, shrouded in demonic red lights, as if he were the villain of the film.) If "Heaven is for Real" had left the source of Colton’s visions ambiguous to the very end, it would’ve been a few editing decisions away from being an "Insidious" sequel.
Despite the horror-movie accouterments, "Heaven is for Real" can never be mistaken for anything other than bible-thumping cinema. But those moments of doubt, of tension, of paranoia -- those moments where the silence of God looms largest, and the family’s struggles with their own faith take hold -- give the movie its strongest charge. Played in a different tone, this could be an entirely different film: It could have been a probing, daring philosophical inquiry into literal belief in religious texts and spirituality. (Basically, it could have been "Birth.") It makes you wish Wallace could have pushed his approach a slight bit farther; it makes you wish he could have left the finale a bit more ambiguous; it makes you wish he could have changed the title of this supposedly true story. "Heaven is for Real" is a passable work of religious propaganda, but "Heaven Might Be For Real" could’ve been a truly thoughtful movie.