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Well-meaning movie not a blessed event

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Colton (Connor Corum) asks his father (Greg Kinnear) what Jesus looks like in Heaven Is for Real.

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Colton (Connor Corum) asks his father (Greg Kinnear) what Jesus looks like in Heaven Is for Real.

In his last film, Secretariat, writer-director Randall Wallace strenuously tried to shoehorn a Christian message into the story of a really fast horse.

At least Wallace has a easier time delivering the spiritual goods with Heaven Is for Real, an adaptation of a bestselling Christian book by Nebraska pastor Todd Burpo.

The book detailed Burpo's crisis of faith arising from a series of misfortunes ranging from kidney stones to his son Colton's near death after suffering a cataclysmic case of appendicitis.

While Colton (arrestingly played by six-year-old Connor Corum) never technically died on the operating table, he emerged from the experience with memories that gave Todd pause.

Impossibly, Colton claimed to see his dad raging at God in the hospital chapel during his surgery. Not only that, he also claims to have visited heaven, where he met Jesus, he touched base with his long dead great-grandpa and even met another older sister he never knew he had, as his mother had miscarried before Colton was born.

This throws Todd for a loop. He ultimately comes to believe there is substance to Colton's experience, even if that belief has the potential to alienate Todd's own parishioners. These include church board member Nancy Rawling (Margo Martindale), a woman in mourning for her dead son, enraged by Todd's credulity towards an airy-fairy afterlife. Even Todd's supportive best friend Jay (Thomas Haden Church) blanches at the possibility of Todd's message going nationwide: "We can't have our town turned into a circus."

You have to give it to Wallace: he's a skilled director of actors, especially juvenile actors, and his dramatic scenes have the power to move you emotionally, no matter how credible you may find the premise.

Kinnear makes for especially canny casting here. Fresh from playing a reprobate lawyer on the recently cancelled series Rake, Kinnear is all conviction and decency here. As Todd's wife Sonya, British actress Kelly Reilly is likewise strong as a good Midwest wife. Casting locally in Manitoba, the director gets good work from Nancy Sorel as a non-believing psychologist consulted by Todd, and nine-year-old Lane Styles as Todd's daughter Cassie.

Wallace also has an ace in the hole with cinematographer Dean Semler, a guy who shoots the film's Manitoba prairie landscapes with amazing visual grace.

The movie should have a little fun with the irony of the situation: Colton emerged from his near-death experience believing in a heaven that even his pastor-father finds too good to be true.

But even as the film has its moments of wry humour -- mostly courtesy of Church -- the film plays little Colton's visions as straight as though it was an undiscovered chapter of the gospel.

In that, it's all a little suspect. The film's Christianity is very much filtered through American values, most obviously when Todd cheers daughter Cassie for punching out a couple of kids who mock her little brother's story on a school playground. (Did Colton personally hear Jesus renounce that turn-the-other-cheek crap?)

More subtle: Colton's miscarried sister, growing up in heaven, seems to be making an unspoken case for life-begins-at-conception.

Equal amounts of faith and skill went into the making of Heaven Is for Real, but it is no service when faith and skill are expended in the service of such a dubious premise.

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 16, 2014 D3

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