By Bill Wine
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) --- If it doesn't quite feel heaven-sent, it at least boasts elements that approach heavenly.
It's Heaven Is for Real, a fact-based, faith-embracing drama based on the 2010 best-seller by Todd Burpo and Lynn Vincent, Heaven Is for Real: A Little Boy's Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back, in which a young boy returns from near death with visions of the hereafter.
Greg Kinnear stars as Todd Burpo, a real-life pastor from a small town in Nebraska and the husband of Sonja, played by Kelly Reilly. They're the parents of two, one of whom is a four-year-old boy, Colton, played by newcomer Connor Corum, who claims to have visited Heaven during a near-death experience, an emergency surgery for a ruptured appendix.
In some instances, such a claim might be easy to dismiss as a fantasy emerging from a youngster's imagination.
In this case, however, with Colton providing details of occurrences that preceded his birth and that he couldn't possibly have known about – including family members from long before his time whom he had essentially no knowledge of -- dismissing it is not so easy.
So Todd struggles with whether or not to believe his son, who also claims matter-of-factly to have seen angels and met Jesus.
The challenge for director and co-writer Randall Wallace (Secretariat, We Were Soldiers, The Man in the Iron Mask), a former screenwriter (Braveheart, Pearl Harbor), is to tell his tale so that it's both astounding – as the source book's subtitle promises -- and convincing within its own context. And he does that with skill and polish.
The adapted screenplay by Chris Parker and Wallace addresses the afterlife without disenfranchising non-believers by allowing for unanswered and unanswerable questions about it. Their script is firm but not pushy.
Kinnear, an Oscar nominee for Best Supporting Actor for As Good As It Gets in 1997, is a reliably steady presence, giving an unforced, sincere reading of the distracted, troubled, ambivalent evangelical minister.
And he's ably supported by Reilly, a Brit; young Corum, a real find and perhaps the film's most astounding feature; and old pros Margo Martindale and Thomas Haden Church as close family friends.
Fairly or not, faith-based movies have acquired a reputation for humorlessness and preachiness. Heaven Is for Real avoids both traps.
This is ultimately a "secular" movie in that it lays out its narrative – billed as "based on a true story" – by blending the known and the unknown in a way that holds the interest of a wider audience than just devout Christians. The source material is, after all, not the Bible but another best-selling book. And the abiding question of what happens when we die is about as universal as questions get.
As for the suspension of disbelief called for with this kind of material; as for the level of trust viewers put in the narrator, who may or may not be reliable; as for the perception of whether or not the movie itself is for real, well, naysayers and believers will differ in their response but should at least feel they're in the hands of a skilled and sensitive storyteller.
So we'll ascend to 3 stars out of 4. Heaven Is for Real tells its story in its own way and, for all kinds of viewers bringing along with them all kinds of beliefs and value systems, manages to do what it sets out to do, which is to cast a spell.
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