Heaven Is for Real gets off to a slow start, but ultimately engages and inspires us as we witness an ordinary, devout Christian family who together deepen their faith. Sentimental but not hokey, this appealing family film based on the popular book will probably be appreciated more by the adults in the family.
An Inspiring Family Film
Todd Burpa (portrayed by the amazingly talented Greg Kinnear) is the hard-working husband, father, and preacher who lives with his family in rural Imperial, Nebraska. Struggling to make ends meet, Todd has a close relationship with his four-year-old son Colton (captivatingly portrayed by Connor Corum). The film begins by immersing us in the life of a small-town farming community where, the small, off-key church choir fits in a living room, the preacher is also your garage-door-installing handyman, and when money is short, people pay each other in goods.
The film picks up its pace when Colton unexpectedly becomes ill and almost dies. After recovering, Colton starts to drop hints about his unusual experience. An attentive father, Todd realizes that something extraordinary has happened to his son. As he gently prompts Colton to reveal what happened to him, Todd is stunned by the detail, conviction, and utter simplicity of his son’s unfolding account. In struggling to understand what’s happened to his son, Todd’s own faith is challenged.
The rest of the film revolves around Todd’s response to his son’s experience, as well as that of his wife and Colton’s big sister. As news leaks out about what happened, the mixed reaction of the community—from making fun to outright rejection—becomes an external reflection of Todd’s inner struggle.
Those who haven’t read the book might think that this film is a preachy answer to whether or not four-year-old Colton visited heaven. But it’s so much more than that. Although the film affirms the existence of heaven through the very real and lived faith of the Burpa family, the film’s central question isn’t whether or not heaven is real. Instead, the film revolves around the nature of faith as the protagonist journeys towards a more mature faith—faith amid suffering.
I found the portrayal of Colton’s mother Sonja (acted by Kelly Reilly) disappointingly distant from the central theme. Although the relationship between Todd and his wife was realistic, it didn’t go deep enough when Todd starting going through his crisis. Instead of a welcome feminine “take” on maturing faith, Sonja’s role was definitely smaller and even a bit superficial, especially in the lack of a strong dialogue between Todd and Sonja. Nevertheless, the film portrays Todd’s need for his wife’s support in the maturing of his faith. In putting such an importance on the sharing of faith—both with family and with community—Heaven Is for Real offers a welcome improvement from the often individualistic approach to faith.
The “preachiness factor” is strong in the beginning of the film, but wanes as the story takes hold. Well-lensed and acted, this is a film the entire family can watch together, although perhaps the younger folks might not appreciate the slow start and focus on Todd’s interior journey. Heaven Is for Real could make a great discussion-starter about the nature of faith, miracles, and how living with eternity in mind can—and should—shape our daily lives.
This is a great film to see together as a family because it is a realistic portrayal of a family who undergo a crisis that matures their faith. Each character offers something to the perspective of faith, with Todd and Colton being central to the story.
What I find refreshing about this film is that Todd’s struggle with faith is not whether he will reject his faith or not, but rather what Todd will do in the darkness of his faith: will he embrace the darkness and grow in faith, allowing his pain and uncertainty to mature him into a better pastor, husband, and father? Or will he allow the darkness and suffering to push him towards a false “safety” in his faith, preaching the platitudes that his congregation wants, but that are not true to his deeper experience?
Although we might find Todd’s struggle to be somewhat ambiguous, we might also find the film’s ending only partially satisfying. Yet, the film’s lack of clarity offers many entryways for a discussion about faith. Because it doesn’t clearly define what faith is, and Todd’s crisis and maturing to deeper faith is somewhat unclear, the film can prompt us to reflect about faith from several angles:
- Living with the awareness of eternity
- Contemplating God’s providence when we suffer
- Acknowledging the miraculous in everyday life
Below are some suggestions for viewing Heaven Is for Real in the light of Scripture and as a window to the soul of humanity. You may wish to use this film as part of your prayer, as Cinema Divina. (To find out more about cinema divina, read this fantastic introduction by Sr. Rose Pacatte, fsp.)
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Cinema Divina with Heaven Is for Real
Suggested Scripture passage to accompany your viewing: Hebrews 12:1-14
“Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross” (Heb. 12:1-2).
- Themes and questions for reflection:
- Faith in Daily Life
- God’s Presence in Suffering
- Accompaniment as Pastoring/Evangelization
- Role of a Pastor in the Church Community
Questions for personal reflection and/or sharing:
- How does this film define faith? How would you define faith? (For deeper reflection, see #s152-165 in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.)
- How would you describe Todd’s central crisis of faith? What was key—the transformation point—in which his faith matured?
- A key visual image in the film is the doorway—starting with the opening of the garage door to a panoramic view of the fields. Did you notice the doorways in the important moments of the film? What might the doorways represent?
- As believers, we have no trouble accepting Scriptural miracles, but what about miracles today? What is the greatest miracle you have ever witnessed? How has witnessing that miracle strengthened your faith?
- What words would you use to describe heaven? Did you find your ideas of heaven changing after watching this film? How would you describe heaven, in light of the film and the Scripture passage above? (See #s1023-1029 in the Catechism of the Catholic Church for additional insight.)
- How was Todd an effective pastor and evangelizer? What can you “take away” from his example to imitate in your own life?
- The Burpa family is a wonderful witness to wholesome family life. Crisis in families can divide family members or unite them. What were some of the strengths of the Burpa family—how were they able to help each other in crisis?
Closing Prayer: Act of Faith, such as the Apostles’ Creed.