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‘Heaven Is for Real’: Pedestrian script saved by diving acting

Small-town preacher Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear) listens his s(Connor Corum) “Heaven Is For Real.” | TRISTAR PICTURES

Small-town preacher Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear) listens to his son (Connor Corum) in “Heaven Is For Real.” | TRISTAR PICTURES

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Todd Burpo Greg Kinnear

Sonja Burpo Kelly Reilly

Colton Burpo Connor Corum

TriStar Pictures presents a film directed by Randall Wallace and written by Wallace and Christopher Parker, based on the book by Todd Burpo with Lynn Vincent. Running time: 100 minutes. Rated PG (for thematic material including medical situations). Opens Friday at local theaters.

Updated: April 15, 2014 9:52PM

Spring 2014 has been a strong season for faith-inspired films to hit the multiplexes. On the heels of “Son of God,” “Noah” and “God’s Not Dead,” we now get “Heaven Is for Real.”

Based on the bestselling book about the real-life story of Todd Burpo, whose 4-year-old son experienced a near-death experience in 2003, this film is another example of first-rate actors outshining their TV-movie-level screenplay. Engaging newcomer Connor Corum brings genuine wholesomeness and non-child-actor charm to the part of young Colton Burpo. Frankly, without him and the fine acting by Greg Kinnear (as Todd Burpo), Kelly Reilly (as mother and wife) and supporting players Margo Martindale and Thomas Haden-Church, “Heaven Is for Real” would be pretty much of a major yawn.

Yet this company of actors pulls together and delivers a lot of punch to a pedestrian script inspired by quite an amazing tale.

Burpo was the epitome of the multi-tasker. At the time of the incident central to the storyline here, the small-town Nebraskan is not only the pastor at his church, but also the local high school’s wrestling coach, a industrial garage door repairman and a key member of the local volunteer fire department.

When his son suffers a burst appendix and almost dies, Burpo’s life and his faith face some pretty steep challenges. Colton recovers and begins to share stories about visiting heaven while on the operating table, and recounting observations about his parents he couldn’t have possibly known.

While Todd Burpo is a very popular preacher and a deeply religious fellow, once Colton’s story becomes public in the newspaper, the issue unnerves people in his congregation. Heaven, after all, even to practicing Christians, is often perceived as a concept, an ideal or a fairly amorphous belief — not a concrete “place” someone can visit and miraculously return to the living.

Kinnear does an excellent job of capturing Burpo’s obvious dilemma and the turmoil he and his wife endure as they work through this critical time in the life of their family. In this film he again proves his innate gift of delivering a performance that is nuanced with both humor and poignancy.

Of course, he is fortunate to have been given young Connor Corum to play his son. Their natural chemistry is easy and on target.

Unfortunately, the film loses its way at times — getting caught up in overemphasized subplots involving the dead son of Martindale’s character and a somewhat bizarre visit Burpo makes to a non-believing university psychologist. A bit about a little girl in the Baltics having a similar experience to Colton’s falls completely flat — and only serves to add an unnecessary note of confusion.

What I did like is the fact that “Heaven Is for Real” leaves open the entire issue of what its title raises. The audience will come away without feeling preached to — and able to make its own mind up about whether or not to believe in a life after death.


Twitter: @billzwecker

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