In “Heaven Is for Real,” Colton Burpo, the angelic 4-year-old son of a Nebraska pastor, undergoes emergency surgery and while under anesthesia experiences a series of visions, including watching his own operation, observing the prayers of his anguished parents and meeting Jesus.
At first, Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear) listens to Colton’s stories with the amused forbearance of a mildly skeptical but proud parent: He and his wife, Sonja (Kelly Reilly), chalk up Colton’s detailed visions to the stories and hymns he’s been steeped in all his life. But when Colton mentions encountering people he never met or even knew existed, Todd becomes convinced that his son really has glimpsed the afterlife, a revelation that sends the preacher on a journey that will ultimately threaten his parish and his family.
Viewers expecting “Heaven Is for Real,” adapted from Todd Burpo’s best-selling memoir by the director Randall Wallace, to be an anodyne allegory of reassurance and unconditional faith are in for something a little bit edgier, and that turns out to be a good thing. Thanks to a sensitive performance from Kinnear, as well as from a terrific cast of supporting actors, what could have been merely a feel-good exercise in Eschatology Lite instead becomes a wholesome but also surprisingly tough-minded portrait of a man wrestling with his faith.
“Heaven Is for Real” undoubtedly supports Colton’s contention that he visited heaven — where, he tells his father in the movie, Jesus rides a multicolored horse. But the movie doesn’t succumb entirely to credulity.
Most of the film has to do with the painful questions Todd, his wife and his parishioners grapple with as they contemplate the implications of Colton’s startling disclosures, first trying to fit them into scriptural understanding and then, when that fails, their own personal theology — or something in between, and unnamed. “Why can’t it just be a mystery?” Todd’s wife asks at one point, echoing the very thoughts of audience members who may not accept Colton’s words as literally true but don’t reflexively dismiss them, either.
Presumably in keeping with Burpo’s book, Wallace ends the film tying Colton’s visions to those of another young person halfway around the world, whose paintings of Jesus eerily coincided with the American toddler’s impressions.
That may be an intriguing turn of events, but the postscript unfortunately detracts from the most powerful sequence in “Heaven Is for Real,” wherein Todd finally seems to process Colton’s journey into something personally crucial and spiritually transformative. In that moving climactic scene, the preoccupations that have consumed him seem utterly beside the point compared with how in God’s name we can love our neighbors as ourselves. It may not involve singing angels or multicolored ponies, but it’s still a question for the ages.