Yesterday afternoon I sat and watched a film which I had decided (a few months ago) that I probably wouldn’t watch at all. The fact is that it is – without doubt – a controversial film and one which – if the conversations I have had previously about the film are anything to go by – divides opinion within Christian circles. It is a film based on a ‘true story’ and the book (of the same name but with the tagline “A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back£) by Pastor Todd Burpo.
And perhaps – in the interest of objectivity and honesty – it is worth my explaining that my awareness of this film came at a time when I was personally witnessing a large number of folk sharing weird and convoluted (and sadly all too often scripturally unsound) theories and indeed leaving churches and corporate worship for the much less structured (dare I say much less disciplined) private worship at home.
Something which both saddens me deeply as a result of my understanding of scriptural encouragements and indeed God’s will for us as believers and disciples of Christ. And so I found myself experiencing a reluctance to even consider watching this film.
But then, (and this seems as good a place as any to insert a quote from the film),
What we believe changes what we perceive.
As usual I am going to try to avoid the trap of giving out spoilers and so I will say very little about the film’s actual content in this review. It is – in the most simplistic of terms – a film about a small boy who has a near death experience and visits heaven and then returns. Plus, of course the fall out of such a revelation.
Instead of discussing the films specific content, I will try to focus on general topics, questions and thoughts raised by this film. And certainly the whole question of a 4 year old boy actually seeing heaven and then returning (Hm. Did he actually ever leave the earth? A debate which will be well oiled I am sure before conversations about this film are over) to earth poses difficulties for many.
Which is one area where the truth of the quote above actually stands out, isn’t it?
Visiting heaven and returning is something which for many is reserved for the ‘special’ the most holy perhaps. And indeed within the parameters of some folk’s understanding and thus their faith the idea that a ‘normal’ (whatever that is) young lad actually going there and coming back poses great difficulties.
And actually, in all honesty, I still don’t know exactly where I stand on that question. Which is probably more of a comment and reflection on where I am in my own faith and walk than it is about this film.
What I can tell you is that whilst the whole subject is a veritable minefield when it comes to the cheesy and twee. And whilst the temptation to flood the thing with wonderful CGI effects must have been great. This film actually manages to get through it without doing so. Although (and again this could well be a reflection on me) it did in one or two places come very close.
And let’s be honest. Some folk seem to have a leaning towards the cheesy and the twee when it comes to this kind of thing. As this image (found when I Googled heaven is for real) illustrates.
Which, unless Jesus has started to endorse Andrew toilet tissue (you really need to have seen European Andrex Toilet tissue adverts to fully understand this comment) makes no sense whatsoever.
The film instead handles the subject extremely delicately and with as little glorious (Hm. perhaps that is the wrong expression) CGI effects and sensationalism as possible. And in doing so certainly adds – or at least doesn’t take away any – credibility.
Greg Kinnear (who plays Pastor Todd Burpo) puts in an excellent performance and is mainly very ably assisted by his on screen son Colton Burpo (wonderfully played by young Conor Corum) and his on screen wife Sonja Burpo (played by Kelly Reilly.)
And I feel I should also mention the wonderful performance by Margo Martindale (also known for such things as Million Dollar Baby, Lonesome Dove [TV] and August: Osage County). In this film she played a church official who was – as a result of her own situation – so very quick to suggest dropping Pastor Todd when things got a little uncomfortable. Oh how true to life and human nature that sadly is. And look out for Thomas Haden Church’s performance in this film – which is also well worthy of a mention.
In essence this is a film which is engaging in both it’s subject matter and it’s presentation. It is, in the opinion of this reviewer, beautifully filmed and delicately handled.
Does it contain a clear message? Yes it does and actually it presents many a believer with questions and even challenges which they may not be too keen to consider. But then, as the quote I started with above “what we believe changes what we believe” suggests, that really depends on each individual believer.
And as pastor Todd Burpo asks and even suggests in the asking within the film…
If heaven is for real, wouldn’t we all live different lives?
I enjoyed the film and yes I would recommend it. But only after admitting that this is now the day after I watched the film and the questions it raised in my heart and my head are still very much pressing for prayerful consideration. And so I close this review with a passage of scripture in the form of Colossians 3:1-4 NKJV…
If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. 2 Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. 3 For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory
Written By: Randall Wallace, Chris Parker, Todd Burpo and Lynn Vincent.
Directed By: Randall Wallace
Starring: Greg Kinnear, Kelly Reilly, Thomas Haden Church, Conor Corum, Margo Martindale.
Genre: Drama, Christian
Released: May 30th, 2014 (UK)
Runtime: 99 mins
Age Rating: PG
Violence: Next to None
Controversial Language: None
Nudity and/or Sexual Content: None
Potentially Disturbing Scenes: None
For Faith and Ful-film-ent Rating: 7/10 ††††††††††