Heaven is For Real is like a mostly non-controversial Sunday sermon. It’s likely to have great meaning for believers in the Christian faith, and for others, it comes off like a Hallmark Card as filmed by Walt Disney… some beautiful cinematography—brightly lit, of course—with some nice sentiments thrown in.
The plot, such as it is, concerns a four-year-old boy who has a Near Death Experience (or does he?), after which he returns to the living with a description of Heaven complete with Jesus, angels, and deceased relatives. This is based on the “true story” as related in the best-selling book of the same name.
It might have been nice if this film really could have established the existence of life after death. What could be better than a Hollywood film deciding one of the great questions of human existence? But it doesn’t quite clear this bar. For example, one of the moments of epiphany occurs when the boy’s father shows a picture of a deceased grandfather and asks the boy if this was the grandfather he met in Heaven.
No, answers the kid, everyone in Heaven is young. The father (Greg Kinnear) then shows him a photo with a younger version of the deceased grandfather, and the kid says, “Yes, that’s who I saw.”
Now, you don’t exactly have to be James M. Randi or Richard Dawkins to deconstruct what’s lacking in this scene (which I assume is taken directly from life). If you wanted to create a more valid test, why not show the boy five different photographs and ask, “Which one was my grandfather?” But to the faithful, this may seem like quibbling.
At the center of the film is a sympathetic, nuanced performance by Greg Kinnear. His character is a good-hearted preacher in a small Nebraska town beset with financial woes, very much like Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams. And in fact, Heaven is For Real recalls that film in a great many ways, from the winning performance of its lead actor to its Heaven-in-a-cornfield cinematography. It’s not hard to imagine that Heaven itself is a little bit like Nebraska on a beautiful sunny day. Heaven is For Real suffers, though, in its lack of a strong antagonist. (Recall that Field of Dreams featured a wonderfully grumpy James Earl Jones who had to be won over with great effort.)
The film does allow for a few objections here and there. In particular, there is one relatively short scene with a psychologist (Nancy Sorel) who says that Near Death Experiences are just a trick of dying brains. So give the filmmakers credit for acknowledging that viewpoint at least a little.
Despite an anemic story line, Kinnear manages to remain mostly engaging as a man who not only has problems paying his bills but seems to be going through a crisis of faith. It’s sometimes hard, however, to see his difficulty. Let’s see… your kid pulled through an operation in which he wasn’t expected to live, he visited Heaven, and he came back testifying that the angels and Jesus are real. If you’re a preacher, how does this challenge your faith? I’d say it’s exactly what you wanted. God was really good to you. As for the financial problems, I’d venture to say that the royalties on the book took care of those for at least a couple of lifetimes.
The other characters are mostly behind the preacher, despite some skepticism here and there. Except for the aforementioned psychologist, there’s nary an atheist in this film. One of the best supporting performances is from Thomas Hayden Church as the local bank president and main character’s best friend. But despite his initial skepticism, he’s behind the preacher too. After all, he’s a regular churchgoer.
The script is nothing if not well intentioned, which – I’m afraid – doesn’t always make for an exciting film. There is a hint in the script (listen for it carefully) suggesting that even a non-believer, one of the preacher’s relatives, made into Heaven too. What’s not to love about that?
In the end, I doubt this film really “proves” much of anything, but its heart is in the right place. There are a couple of things that are worth considering (the boy "saw" his father in the other room, angry at God) but probably not enough to persuade the skeptic.
The most appealing message of all is one that Greg Kinnear’s character delivers in a sermon in the next-to-last scene. Heaven is real, he suggests, because we’ve all glimpsed some of it in the here and now, in our happiest moments of life. So Heaven must exist at least as a possibility. The afterlife, if it awaits us, is just more of the same. (The good parts, that is.)
Is it true? Who can say? But it’s a nice sentiment just the same.