When Colton Burpo (played here by cherubic newcomer Connor Corum) was four years old, his appendix ruptured and he nearly died. On the operating table he experienced what he describes as Heaven. Not only did he go there, he met his great grandfather, as well an unnamed sister lost to miscarriage. According to Colton’s father, minister Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear), who eventually wrote a book about the boy’s experience, Colton couldn’t have possibly known about these things. Whether or not any of this actually happened is something only the Burpo family knows. For the purposes of this review let’s say it’s all true.
Let’s also say that Heaven Is For Real Ministries, as the Burpo’s ongoing business concern is known, one involving the book’s translation into over 30 languages, a traveling show called Heaven Is For Real: LIVE, Sunday School curriculum materials, and merchandise emblazoned with the face of Jesus (painted by Akiane Kramarik, a young Lithuanian girl who experienced a similar near-death visit to Heaven and who now creates portraits of a blue-eyed Son of God in the style of “Whenever I Call You Friend”-era Kenny Loggins), is not an effort to fleece the gullible but is, truly, a labor of love. I’ll add to my wish list that theirs is also strictly a charitable operation, one that gives all its profits to sick childrens’ families so that they can pay their own exorbitant medical bills. I have no evidence to support this. I just want that to be true, too. So it is.
The reason I’ve decided this is all true is because I want one more thing: I want this thoughtful, gentle, kind-hearted take on the Christian life to kick the smug, mean-spirited, combative God’s Not Dead’s ass at the box office.
I’m a big believer in there being enough room for everyone at the movies. And there just aren’t a lot of faith-based films that don’t go straight to DVD. But suddenly a handful are making their way to theatrical release, which in the contemporary multiplex landscape is the equivalent of an avalanche. Only one problem with this for the audience that really wants to see their lives represented on screen: most of the films are rotten. Last year’s I’m In Love With A Church Girl, for example, or the current reigning independent release God’s Not Dead, are not only badly made films, they insult the intelligence and decency of the very people buying tickets to see them.
So into this arena comes a mysterious story of belief and skepticism, one that’s competently executed (director Randall Wallace and cinematographer Dean Semler love Terrence Malick's fading late afternoon light, sunflowers and beautiful American heartland), populated with good actors (Kinnear’s sad-eyed everyman invites empathy you didn’t know you had in you) and sturdy enough to allow for differing viewpoints within the structure of the story. Detours from absolute faith don’t require the correction or humiliation of the characters who choose that path; nobody has to be taken down a peg for their disbelief. In fact, the film’s most moving sequence involves the grief and questioning of a local church lady (Margo Martindale, the best character actress in American film) as she grapples with personal resentment and her own resistance to the Burpo’s story turning their small town church into a magnet for media and people with simple-minded ideas about faith. In a film like God’s Not Dead this character would be hit by a car as punishment. Here, she’s embraced and given a voice.
Hucksterism or attractively marketed sincerity, it doesn't really matter. I simply want to believe that this approach to Evangelical filmmaking, one that realizes it still lives in the real world of complex human beings, could take hold and serve as a model of not-crazy, not-stupid and not-hateful. And because I believe it, it’s true. So congratulations, Christian audiences. Things could only get better. And now they are.