But, surprisingly, the film itself appears to have some doubts of its own, hanging back from fully endorsing the authenticity of Colton's experience. In one of the film's major visual and thematic motifs, adults interact without realizing that children are hearing or observing them. The first shot of Colton shows him playing in a separate room while mom's choir practices. In a scene faithful to the book, Todd and Sonja discuss bills and are surprised by Colton's sudden appearance insisting that they pay the doctors, indicating he overheard much of their conversation. Colton and his sister share a bedroom, and while Todd speaks to Colton, the camera pans from across the room, past the reclining figure of Cassie on another bed. Is she asleep? Does she overhear the conversation? We don't know for sure, but the camera draws our attention to what Todd is not even seeing.
And that certainly struck me as purposeful. Those who want to make Colton's experience some sort of apologetic hang a lot of weight on the idea that Colton knew things he presumably had no way of knowing. Continually reminding viewers that Colton and Cassie see without being seen may be the filmmakers' way of leaving the door open for a naturalistic answer to this question, instead of a miraculous one.
Less subtle and more problematic is the fact that when the film depicts Colton's encounter with Jesus, it is not as Colton subsequently describes it. Jesus does not have stigmata marks on the hand we see, but Colton subsequently tells the adults that Jesus has "markers." My colleague Claudia Mundy also pointed out that Jesus's attire is different from what Colton describes in the book.
Are these simply continuity errors, rather than attempts to question Colton's reliability? Possibly. Parts of the heavenly encounters are clearly changed from Colton's description in the book to make them more filmable: Colton doesn't sit on Jesus' lap or see Jesus' horse (or other animals). The heavenly encounters are filmed in earthly places that would already be a part of his memory. Of course, artistic license is a given in book-to-film adaptations. But Colton mentions the stigmata in the film, and it is hard to believe that in a film that asks viewers to accept Colton's testimony as gospel, the depictions of his heavenly stay would not be carefully scrutinized at all stages of the production.
Whether or not these changes are intentional, though, they make the film better as a film. By distributing skepticism evenly across all the characters, even the Christians, Heaven is For Real avoids much of the smugness that marred God's Not Dead. Like that film, Heaven is For Real has a token atheist/skeptic who is actually angry at God rather than dubious of his existence.