Culture Film

‘Heaven is For Real:’ a new kind of Christian film?

Most Christian movies are mocked for eschewing artistic quality in favour of a certain brand of evangelical faith and propriety. While that may be an unfair blanket assumption, more often than not it’s accurate.

There have been great Christian filmmakers, such as Tarkovsky, Bresson, and Rohmer, but their films aren’t associated with the genre of Christian movies. The Christian film genre is typically made up of flawed, but commendable movies from Sherwood Pictures like Facing the Giants, Fireproof, and Courageous.

These are movies produced by Christians, for Christians. And they’re not without value: all are family -friendly, well -intentioned, and each subsequent film shows improvement. But they breed an insular sub- culture where we are encouraged to go see whatever “Christian” or “wholesome” movie is playing, just so we can send a message to “Hollywood” about what kinds of movies we want them to produce.

The attitude assumes that a “Christian” movie is a good movie, and that “Hollywood” is a monolithic entity. Do we really need movies that preach to the choir? The result is subpar movies and subpar preaching.

The issue with “Christian” movies like this is that they run the risk of being intellectually dishonest. I’d rather see more movies like This is Martin Bonner, one of the best portrayals of Christians on screen: devoid of preaching, made by an atheist on a shoestring budget. And though Noah has certainly had its share of controversy in the last few months, it’s one of the better made biblical movies in recent memory. I wish that more Christian films would follow in Noahs footsteps and be willing to take imaginative risks, pushing creative boundaries.

So where does Heaven is for Real fit within the Christian genre? It’s not made by an independent, Christian studio; it’s produced by Sony, having a bigger budget and featuring bigger names than most “Christian” films. But it’s still a movie about Christians, focusing on heaven, even though it’s trying to be more accessible to a general audience.

Unfortunately, Heaven is for Real tries to please everyone. In doing so, it ends up feeling like three different movies. One is a family drama about a man trying to care for his family in the midst of debt and doubt; one is a film that questions the verifiability of a miraculous and individual experience, trying to anticipate and answer skeptics; and one is a film that aims to inspire and reaffirm people’s faith in God while preaching a message of love.

On the whole, the film is well made, and it’s certainly an improvement upon other recent films like Son of God or Gods Not Dead. The acting is fairly good, especially from the leads. Greg Kinnear does an admirable turn as Todd Burpo, a pastor trying to provide for his family while questioning whether his son, Colton, really has experienced heaven. Kinnear carries the movie on his shoulders and elevates the performances of those around him.

The script is at its best focused on family dynamics, but it’s even better at levity. One scene in particular had the audience laughing: the family is singing “This Little Light of Mine” in the car, when Colton asks if they can sing “We Will Rock You” instead. There’s an awkward silence for a few seconds before the whole car erupts into the Queen hit song at the top of their lungs. It’s a joy to watch. But it unfortunately only lasts 30 seconds.

The directing is poor, which is surprising since Randall Wallace has proven himself perfectly capable with The Man In The Iron Mask, We Were Soldiers, and Secretariat. The shot composition is often awkward. Near the beginning of the film, a scene with Todd driving his truck through Nebraskan farmland, is covered by three different shots. The composition barely changes; it neither helps the narrative, nor says anything substantial about the character or setting.

Even worse is when Colton is being wheeled away to surgery in the hospital, and the camera focuses on his hand slowly losing grip on his favourite toy. He invariably drops it, which is captured it in a slow motion close up. Out of sync with the visual style, it’s one of the most-jarring visual decisions in the film.

The movie could have recovered from these missteps. It admirably struggles with doubts, and brings up multiple objections to the veracity of Colton’s experience. Todd sees a secular psychiatrist, who raises all sorts of doubts that any skeptic would raise. Though the film never addresses these questions properly, Heaven is For Real allows for skepticism; even if its answers aren’t satisfactory, at least the film has the gumption to make room for it.

Philosophically and theologically, I don’t agree with Christians seeking empirical proof of life after death, especially when it’s packaged and sold to people. These stories are used to comfort those fearing death, or to console individuals about lost loved ones. It’s understandable, but I don’t think latching on to other people’s personal experiences, like this one, should be shared as the answer to our doubts.

Thomas Merton has an interesting take on the subject: “The Christian is not concerned really with a life divided between this world and the next. He is concerned with one life, the new life of man (Adam – all men) in Christ and in the Spirit, both now and after death.”

Though I don’t fit into the ideal demographic this movie is marketed to, I wanted it to win me over. I was interested in seeing how heaven was envisioned, and how that one experience changes the family forever. Since the story claims foundations on real events, heaven should have been glorious and dazzling. Instead, the film spends less than 10 minutes showing us heaven, and when it does, it’s incredibly uninspired. It’s the type of heaven portrayed on greeting cards, and it brings down the movie. The angels’ voices are meant to be beautiful, but end up being oddly creepy; their laughter is unsettling rather than joyful.

Heaven is for Real had an opportunity to be an innovative step forward for Christian films, to shed the skin of its insular predecessors, presenting a new kind of Christian film that isn’t confined to the conventions of its genre and the expectations of its audience. While it is a step up, it’s still plagued by the same limitations as other faith-based films.

Instead of allowing faith and art to intersect as they do in life, Heaven is for Real prescribes Christianity rather than describing it. Jacques Maritain had it right when he wrote: “If you want to make a Christian work, then be Christian, and simply try to make a beautiful work, into which your heart will pass; do not try to ‘make Christian.’”

Heaven is for Real is in theatres April 16.