From the title on down, you know what you’re in for with “Heaven Is for Real,” the film adaptation of Todd Burpo’s best-selling book (with Lynn Vincent) about his young son’s encounter with the afterlife. Cynics and non-Christians are allowed to have their guard up: Here’s a story about a Nebraska pastor who claims his 4-year-old boy ascended to heaven during an emergency appendectomy and returned bearing tales of Jesus’ horse and dead relatives he couldn’t have known about. Doubters, repent! A little child shall lead them, and he’s super-adorable.
Except that “Heaven Is for Real” turns out to be about cynicism and doubt for a sizable chunk of its running time — the struggle within those who already believe rather than the conversion of unbelievers. That makes it a surprisingly nuanced entry in the Christian film genre, even if the movie finally and firmly comes down on the side of angels, Day-Glo Elysian Fields, and Christ as nice guy incarnate. The faithful should welcome it warmly. Others may come away unconvinced while appreciating the film’s sincerity and lack of anti-secular axes being ground.
The production is top-notch and the cast plucked from the high B-list. Greg Kinnear is Burpo, underpaid pastor at a Wesleyan church in the small farming town of Imperial, and Kelly Reilly plays his wife, Sonja, with a lovely stressed sympathy. They’re jes’ folks, as are fellow church leaders Jay (Thomas Haden Church) and Nancy (Margo Martindale). Connor Corum as 4-year-old Colton goes heavy on the Magic Child precociousness, but apparently the real Colton’s even cuter, so there’s that.
As co-written (with Christopher Parker) and directed by Randall Wallace (“Secretariat”), “Heaven Is for Real” takes place in a heartland America hobbled by economic woes but still bound by community ties. There are no villains here; even the lady psychology professor (Nancy Sorel) gets off relatively unscathed. (It’s an interesting point with modern Christian films that no one’s allowed to come by their lack of faith honestly; in most cases, the death of a loved one has made them “angry with God.”)
With a few tweaks — maybe one more shot of a silhouetted Colton framed forebodingly in a doorway — “Heaven Is for Real” could play as an “Omen”-style horror movie. Todd’s crisis of faith and alienation of his family and flock at times recalls Richard Dreyfuss wrestling with UFOs and mashed potatoes in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” or Michael Shannon’s existential agony in the more recent “Take Shelter.” But while “Heaven Is for Real” asks a lot of questions, it ultimately has no doubt whatsoever about the answers. Take it on faith or not at all.