Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 39 min.
Our content ratings:V 0; L -0 S/N 1.
Our star ratings (1-5): 3
I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows— was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat
2 Corinthians 12:2-4
Long-time readers know of my wariness in regard to movies made by so-called faith-based filmmakers. Thus, I have put off catching director/writer Randall Wallace’s adaptation of the New York Times best-selling book of the same (hokey) name, especially when a good friend emailed me that he did not care for the film. Still, the Rev. T.D. Jakes is one of the producers, and I thought his Woman, Thou Art Loosed was a very good film, so at last I found myself at a daytime showing where there were a few more viewers than usual for that hour.
Set in the small town of Imperial, Nebraska, this is the story of what happens when a pastor’s 4 year-old son Colton (Connor Corum) experiences a near death experience and claims to have seen Heaven, Jesus, and his grandfather. His father Rev. Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear) and mother Sonja (Kelly Reilly) are taken aback by the boy’s claim. However, the details of Colton’s narrative, such as his recognizing his grandfather not from the picture of him as an old man, but as a youth, and his bombshell statement that he met the sister he had never known existed, convinces Todd that the boy had not been hallucinating, as a psychologist had suggested. Sonja had suffered a miscarriage, and she and Todd had never told Colton about this. They had not even named her because they had not enquired about her sex, so traumatized had they been by the loss. (There is a chapel scene when Colton is near death during which Todd cries out in anguished honor for God not to take his son from him.)
One would think that such a sensational affirmation of the Christian belief in heaven would inspire the congregation, but it does not, leading instead to trouble and even the possibility of Todd having to leave the pulpit because many parishioners are ill at ease when he speaks of the experience. The part-time pastor (he installs garage doors to make ends meet) is criticized even by his best friend Jim (Thomas Haden Church) and church organist Nancy (Margo Martindale). The latter has become embittered since her son was killed a few years before in Afghanistan. In one of the most moving scenes of the film the two converse at the son’s grave where Nancy confesses to jealousy that her son died while Todd’s lived, and that her anger is directed toward God, not him. Todd assures her that God does not care any more for him than for her.
Although Randall Wallace leaves some ambiguity for skeptical viewers, the ending in church with Todd’s sermon and congregational hug seems a bit over the top, a bit too warm and fuzzy, so that I was reminded of a similar climax to an otherwise good film Mr. Holland’s Opus. Some have faulted the film for its depiction of a white-skinned Jesus that Colton reports having seen, but they forget that the trip to Heaven is seen through the eyes of a 4 year-old who is unlikely to know about any of the fascinating portraits of Christ created by Asian, African, and Latin American artists. (My D. Min. thesis included surveys of such paintings by non-European artists, and I found very few adults who knew about them.)
Thanks to a strong cast, especially the sincere performance by Greg Kinnear who eschews any piousness so often associated with movie ministers, the film does not descend to the level of propaganda. Most of all, of course, praise must be given to the delightful little actor Connor Corum (and to the film’s casting director) whose sense of innocence and obvious affection for Kinnear has endeared the film to many. I will not be adding this to VP’s Top Ten list at the end of the year, but I will say that it is so much better than I had expected, especially after having sat through God Is Not Dead a week before. For those wanting to explore matters of faith—not Heaven itself, but the hope for better things that the concept represents—this could be a useful film. Indeed, as I was writing that last sentence, a quotation from the new Spider-Man movie came to mind, so let me end by repeating that quote about the need for the web slinger: “I like to think he gives people hope.” “For what?” the other asks, and the response is, “That everything will get better.”