Greg Kinnear is the perfect actor to star in Heaven is for Real, an adaptation of the nonfiction best-seller of the same name. The guy from Flash of Genius and Little Miss Sunshine is the one you want for another character struggling in life and trying to convince people of something. He has sad eyes but a charming smile. And in movies like this, no matter how you feel about the message at its core, you’ll like the person he’s playing and want him to succeed. If Tucker: The Man and His Dream or Field of Dreams were remade today, Kinnear would be a great choice to play either’s protagonist. Heaven is for Real is actually quite reminiscent of the latter. It’s set in the Midwest farmlands and deals with a man about to lose everything, it involves a father/son relationship and, most importantly, it involves the afterlife.
Yet it won’t be accepted the same way, because Field of Dreams was sold as a fantasy film and Heaven is for Real is classified in the Christian genre (and as a true story). More than most of these kinds of films, though, it has the capability to transcend the faith-based demographic thanks to the appeal of the cast and their winning performances. Kinnear’s is the strongest, though Kelly Reilly does a fine job as his wife, the under-appreciated Margo Martindale stands out in a supporting role and 6-year-old newcomer Connor Corum breaks out as the true star, offering the most adorable, non-precocious work by a child actor in a very long time. He has great chemistry with the adults, particularly Kinnear, and between the two, no scene ever becomes overly sentimental because we fully believe in their characters.
Corum plays Colton Burpo, the 4-year-old son of a preacher man (Kinnear) who claims to have visited Heaven while his body was being operated on. He met Jesus, his great-grandfather and the miscarried sister he’d never known he had. His father (whose name is Todd) believes him pretty quickly, due to Colton’s convincing claim that he saw what his parents were doing at the very moment his burst appendix was being treated. When Todd begins to talk to his congregation about the miracle and of Colton’s alleged spiritual trip, he gets into some trouble with his church’s board members (including Martindale and Thomas Haden Church). Apparently Christians are uncomfortable with such confirmation of the very afterlife they believe in. Plus, of course, there’s the ridicule from the non-religious.
The drama within the Church is far more interesting. As a Christian film, Heaven is for Real features some common themes regarding faith, as well as the expected hint at a pro-life position. For a Christian film, though, it’s bolder to have the tension be between members of the same sect, in a way that seems to call out most churchgoers as questionable in their devotion, at least to the more difficult to fathom elements of the theology. God, Jesus, prayer, charity and some other aspects of Christianity in abstraction are easy; trusting that Heaven is real is hard because it makes people worrisome that they might not wind up there. Isn’t that supposed to be a given? Even without that side of it, though, the what-if scenarios put to modern believers (i.e. what if Jesus showed up today?) provoke great discussions. Christian films are often criticized for preaching to the choir, but this one intends to make that choir think deeper about what’s being preached.
Is the movie — which was directed by Randall Wallace (We Were Soldiers) from an adaptation by himself and Chris Parker (Battle of the Year) — going to convert anyone outside the choir? No, many are still going to groan or roll their eyes at some of the most pointed bits, just as much as the devout are going to scowl at the academic (Nancy Sorel) who relates Christianity to magic when Todd goes to her for expertise. The dialogue in general is serving the things that Todd Burpo and Lynn Vincent‘s book and this movie directly mean to communicate, little more. But we didn’t have to be convinced that there is Heaven or dead baseball players who want to play in a random Iowa cornfield to enjoy Field of Dreams. We just have to accept that the world on screen makes sense to the characters living in it, and vice versa.
Heaven is for Real works in the way a good sermon works, the way non-believers can attend a service and be captivated by a pastor, such as the one Kinnear plays, without feeling preached to. Todd, as a character, is a good performer at the altar, and as Todd, Kinnear is a good performer in the role. The performance of the whole movie is relative to the quality of a decent sermonizer, telling a story of faith versus mere hope. This sermon has the secret weapon of Corum, though, shot primarily in close-ups with his big eyes and always-delayed smile, which gets you every time, like a cherub dropped in your lap while you’re listening to the movie-as-pastor’s speech.
It’s hard to say if this is the start of another great child actor’s career, as Corum rarely appears to be acting in the way that most little Hollywood hams do. If anything, he’s playing younger, rather than trying to be an adult. Like Kinnear, he’s absolutely the perfect person for the role, and while here he gets by more on his looks than a certain talent for the work, he comes off as so capable and natural that he’ll definitely be given another movie with which to show us if he’s indeed got that talent. Meanwhile, I might be even more interested in seeing if there’s room in Hollywood for other Christian films that are this satisfying in their emphasis on the “film” part of the label more than the “Christian” one, especially if they’re stimulating rather than indoctrinating.
The Upside: Kinnear and Corum are both perfectly cast and are a really great team together; leads to discussion rather than preaching a straight message
The Downside: The dialogue isn’t as natural as the performances; a bookending sequence about prodigious Christian painter Akiane Kramarik doesn’t work
On the Side: Corum landed his role through an open audition in his native Ohio, where he sang “Amazing Grace,” and his dream follow-up gig is a part in a Captain America movie.