Movie Review: ‘Heaven’ is heartwarming

At last! A Christian-themed film that non-Christians can watch without bolting for the exit.

In recent years, pro-Bible movies like “Fireproof” and “God’s Not Dead” were a hit with evangelicals but roundly dismissed by everyone else.

That won’t happen with “Heaven Is for Real.”

Based on a best-selling 2010 memoir, the film recounts the story of 4-year-old Colton Burpo, who claims to have visited heaven during surgery for a burst appendix.

The film is overtly religious and baldly sentimental – yet it works. Frankly, I’m not sure how they pulled it off.

Step one, I guess, was snagging Randall Wallace as director and co-writer. He scripted “Braveheart” and directed “Secretariat” – say no more.

Step two: Cast Greg Kinnear and Kelly Reilly as Colton’s parents.

Kinnear, an unsung but astoundingly reliable actor, is rock-solid as a successful pastor whose life is turned upside down by his son’s story. And Reilly, simply electrifying in “Flight,” is five-and-a-half feet of pure dynamite; she’s so visceral, it’s like there’s no screen between her and the viewer.

The late-film scene where Colton tells her about getting hugged is worth the price of admission.

As young Colton, newcomer Connor Corum also carries many potentially cornball scenes with a performance that seems to be a perfect blend of brilliant acting and no acting at all. Wallace deserves some kind of medal for the work he got out of this little boy.

The script is fairly solid – front-lining potentially awkward subjects like the Bible, prayer, church music and Jesus Christ in a way that feels natural rather than pushy and preachy.

In part, the film pulls off this impressive balancing act by working in lots of effective humor.

Even more important, its major characters (principally Kinnear’s) are flawed and wracked by doubts – a factor other Christian films would be wise to incorporate.

On the downside, “Heaven” seems to deliberately downplay solid biblical content, mixing in more contemporary attitudes that carry less offense (God is all love; heaven is what’s here and now). This doesn’t necessarily ruin the film – but I hope Christians won’t pretend it propounds their most beloved teachings. It doesn’t.

There’s not a whiff of the key doctrine about Christ’s atonement. Burpo’s sermons are about as nutritious as Tic Tacs, and about as long; and I don’t recall any Bible verse with Jesus riding a rainbow-colored horse.

Other weaknesses: Wallace and co. never clarify how Colton’s experience precipitates a crisis of faith for his father. There are a few inconsistencies as well, particularly the “let’s go out!” lifestyle of a family that’s supposed to be all but bankrupt.

So the movie’s not perfect, and despite its caution, some will still find it too sappy and simplistic. But on the whole, “Heaven” takes a nice step forward for faith-based films – a decent example of how it can be done without alienating those with different beliefs.

3 stars out of 4.

Rated PG thematic material including some medical situations.