In the film world, telling any story is going to have its difficulties and setbacks. Telling or, in this case rather, translating a true story to the big screen is another matter entirely. But when a film touts those five notoriously nebulous words “based on a true story” it’s unclear how much of said events actually happened. Why is that? Well that’s because studios, screenwriters and directors can use very broad strokes when painting a live action picture. They take liberties when and where they chose if they believe it makes the translation more appealing. Nothing new there.
But more to the above point, when a religious movie is based on a true story you not only have cinema going folk taking in (and scrutinizing) the events on screen but, as religion can always be a touchy subject, there are way more eyes looking for truth (and answers) to be reflected off the silver screen. As per the norm, even if stating this is getting a bit redundant in this review, an adaptation is really an interpretation. Yet as a film is a means of conveying a message or a point of view it all comes down to what you want to say with the elements, be they real or fictitious. That’s where Heaven Is For Real proves to be a special production.
The true story of Colton Burpo, the boy who during surgery is said to have actually had a trip to Heaven, has been embraced by millions and inspired millions more with the subsequent book that was published. To those who hold Colton’s ordeal sacred across the globe, this is very delicate property. Yet the way Randall Wallace (writer of Braveheart and screenwriter/director of We Were Soldiers) handles the source material well while doing justice to the Burpos’ experience. In short, he guides the movie in such a way that it effortlessly does what good films do best – move us.
With a title like “Heaven Is For Real“, things could very easily have gotten very cheesy, or worse, gone overboard preaching the message (religious pun not intended). Really there is no message just a really great story about faith and family. It has its bumps and a few eye rolling scenes but when all is said and done it’s a very affecting tale. Casting does a lot for the story and there are very very few actors who can assume, convey and sell the true “every man” role in film aside from Greg Kinnear.
Whether or not you’ve read the book it’s very easy to become endeared to the Burpo clan and it’s all about what Kinnear brings to the table. Just like the true story, the film follows young Colton and how he continues to astound his family (and to some degree the community) by talking about Heaven. Active imaginations in children are one thing but at 4 years of age Colton couldn’t possibly have gained/retained this depth of Biblical knowledge prior to telling his stories. Nor is it plausible that someone that young could conjure up something so grand as the imagery he claims to have witnessed while in Heaven. Granted this is about Colton’s experience but the tangible sincerity and downright believable connection he has with Connor Corum (playing young Colton) makes this work when in any other case would be hokey. Of course it doesn’t hurt that Corum brings an equal amount of cuteness and awkwardness to the delivery and his fondness for classic Queen songs.
Stories of small towns, and more importantly small town struggles, might not be too easily understood by audiences. But the idea of a father taking no less than four jobs (pastor, volunteer firefighter, wrestling coach, garage door installer) to support his family is seems a bit of a stretch. However, as the head of the household he has to do whatever it takes to provide for his family, especially when Colton’s medical bills put them on the verge of bankruptcy. Again a winning move to cast Kinnear as his range of emotions can run believably deep. In lesser hands an adaptation of Heaven Is For Real could have been a mess, and at best a glorified Lifetime film. It’s not great by any means and, again, there are some lulls and elements/characters that seem to be placed such oddly convenient places, but it can be enjoyable at times.
It’s a whole other matter whether or not if you believe the story and whether you’re or not you are religious, but it’s kind of hard not to want go along on this journey about a quaint Nebraska family. It’s a story about people and that’s what we can all grasp on to. Again casting is an important element in the film’s success, turning the above mentioned Burpos into a living screen presence. Really you don’t need to do much to tell this story and that, in a way, is the key component; Heaven Is For Real is a simple tale but the effects it has on the community and the world are anything but. It’s told with such a matter of fact frankness by actors who are just as frank. Moreover Wallace’s adaptation doesn’t imply or force its message on the audience. Again, there is no message, just a heartfelt story. This down to earth “true” tale about family, community and people in general casts a universal message that resonates with just about any walk of life.