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updated: 4/16/2014 6:19 AM

'Heaven'-sent drama moving but flawed look at the afterlife

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  • Sonja Burpo (Kelly Reilly), Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear) and their son Colton (Connor Corum) try to confirm the boy's story he visited heaven in "Heaven is for Real."

      Sonja Burpo (Kelly Reilly), Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear) and their son Colton (Connor Corum) try to confirm the boy's story he visited heaven in "Heaven is for Real."

  • Video: "Heaven is Real" trailer

 
 

You can tell "Heaven is for Real" wants to be a refreshing, faith-based drama, especially when it acknowledges Christian ministers can enjoy healthy sex lives in marriage.

The movie also confirms the answers to two big questions for the doubting Thomases of the Christian religion:

1) Heaven does exist.

2) Human souls are created at conception, not birth.

Randall Wallace's moving movie version of Todd Burpo's best-selling book does not harbor a left-wing or right-wing political agenda, just an angel-wing chronicle about the extraordinary experiences of a 4-year-old boy.

Young Colton Burpo (played with touching sincerity and adorable transparency by newcomer Connor Corum) shakes up his family and community when he awakes in a hospital bed after battling a severe illness.

He describes an out-of-body experience, watching himself on the operating table, then being whisked to heaven where he meets angels and Jesus Christ himself.

This creates an unexpected problem for Colton's dad Todd (Greg Kinnear), the pastor of a small Wesleyan church in Imperial, Neb., a town that could appear in a Norman Rockwell painting.

Todd could be in one, too. He works for the struggling Overhead Door Specialists. He volunteers as a junior-high wrestling coach and a firefighter. Plus, he plays on a community ball team with his wife, Sonja (Kelly Reilly).

News of young Colton's visions brings unexpected conflict with Todd's friend (and local bank president) Jay Wilkins (Thomas Hayden Church), who worries the town will be held up to ridicule.

Nancy Rawling (Margo Martindale), one of Todd's flock, turns on the minister and wants him replaced. The sharpest conflict comes from his wife, who thinks Todd has lost perspective on other members of his family.

I saw "Heaven is for Real" without much prior knowledge of the Burpo story, so the building evidence of Colton's truthfulness came at me in a series of blissful surprises. (All these are gutted in the ruin-it-for-everyone TriStar trailers.)

Wallace, who wrote the powerful "Braveheart" and misdirected the manipulative "Secretariat," makes a major narrative miscalculation. Instead of harnessing viewers' imaginations to create the mystery and awe of the afterlife through Colton's words, Wallace serves up literal, less powerful special-effects shots.

Then, Nick Glennie-Smith's obtrusive, shouting score sabotages the magic of this story with force-fed music that doesn't trust the cast to communicate emotional truths.

But they do anyway, especially Kinnear with his unexpectedly multidimensional portrait of Todd. Kinnear cannily captures the way a minister plays his emotional and political convictions close to the vest, while still religiously remaining an open book.

His exchange with Martindale's harsh and angry parishioner -- who lost her son in the war -- ranks as one of the most thoughtfully presented Christian moments I've witnessed in the movies.

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