But unlike that film, Heaven is For Real doesn't force a conversion on the skeptic as a means of declaring its own intellectual victory. This film looks inward, using Colton's story to ask Christians to think through what they really believe, rather than focusing all their energy on how to get non-Christians to believe it too. Its dramatic highlight is a graveside conversation between Todd and Nancy (the always reliable Margo Martindale) that at least attempts to wrestle with the "why" questions. Why Colton? Why do so many prayers go unanswered? Why, if heaven is real, does death still sting so much, even for Christians?
Greg Kinnear gives a thoughtful, layered performance that is crucial in presenting Todd as an earnest truth seeker rather than someone trying to capitalize on his circumstances. (The film honestly depicts the Burpos' money struggles but never hints at much less buys into the cynical criticism that Colton's experience was being marketed for financial gain.) I did hear one (young) attendee at a test screening complain that Kelly Reilly's portrayal of Sonja made her seem too frisky, but I appreciated the depiction of a physically affectionate Christian marriage.
I include the overheard viewer's comment as an example of just how disparate Christian reactions to the film might be. If you are reading this column, chances are you don't need me to tell you that Christian audiences have rarely been more divided at the movies than they are these days. (I can't imagine any non-Christians being remotely interested, despite T. D. Jakes's insistence that the urge to protect one's family is a universal human impulse that would attract secular viewers.) Like the wrong movie and you should be burned at the stake. Fail to like the right one and you are a traitor to the tribe.
In such a polarized culture, perhaps the biggest miracle surrounding Heaven is For Real is that it genuinely tries to be as inclusive as possible to the widest spectrum of Christian viewers. I'd be disappointed for the film if it was rejected for this reason by those who want Colton's story to be a trump card in a social debate, rather than an invitation to contemplate the mystery of God's ways.
Heaven is for Real is rated PG. Any depiction of a child in a life-threatening situation could disturb sensitive viewers. A close-up shot of one character's broken bone protruding through skin is somewhat gruesome. A young girl punches two boys in the face in a playground fight. The Burpos are shown kissing.
Kenneth R. Morefield is an Associate Professor of English at Campbell University. He is the editor of Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema, Volumes I & II, and the founder of1More Film Blog.