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Review: Heaven is for Real (2014)

Heaven is for Real (2014)

Directed by: Randall Wallace

Premise: Based upon the book of the same name. A small town minister (Greg Kinnear) struggles to account for his son’s out-of-body experience in which he claims to have visited heaven.

What Works: One of the growing trends in the motion picture marketplace has been the rise of faith-based films. The last few years have seen the release of Courageous, Last Ounce of Courage, and Black Nativity and in in the first four months of 2014 alone there have been several religious films in wide theatrical release including Son of God, Noah, and God’s Not Dead. The quality and integrity of these films have varied widely and Heaven is for Real ranks firmly in the middle to upper tier of that trend. Unlike many of the titles in this genre, which were produced on microbudgets for faith-based independent production houses, Heaven is for Real was made by Sony-owned studios, was directed and co-written by Randall Wallace (director Secretariat and writer of Braveheart), was shot by cinematographer Dean Selmer, and it stars impressive acting talent including Greg Kinnear, Kelly Reilly, and Thomas Haden Church. The benefit of a slightly higher budget and an experienced cast and crew shows through on the screen. Heaven is for Real has a slick, professional look, especially in comparison to a lot of the other religious films in the marketplace. The picture is very well shot with some gorgeous scenery and the performances are very strong. Interestingly, this Hollywood studio film does its religious themes better than a lot of the pictures coming from faith-based studios. Those pictures go wrong because the filmmakers play their hand too hard and emphasize their message of proselytization at the expense of the story. The filmmakers of Heaven is for Real also have a message to deliver but they do that through the storytelling and for most of the film that message is implicit in the drama. Heaven is for Real is also successful because of its authenticity. These people feel real and that reality is partly rooted in the humor of the film, a trait that distinguishes Heaven is for Real from many self-serious religious pictures. The authenticity is also found in the fallibility and uncertainty of the characters. That is one of the key distinctions of Heaven is for Real from other movies in its genre. This film has a unique and provocative premise; when the pastor is confronted by evidence of heaven the realization is a challenge to his faith rather than an affirmation of it. In the context of the story, the acknowledgement of heaven as a real possibility is actually frightening because it turns the pastor’s livelihood from an academic exercise into something concrete that has real consequences.

What Doesn’t: Although the filmmakers of Heaven is for Real set up a unique premise they do not fully deliver on it. The pastor’s tensions are acknowledged about halfway through the picture but it seems like the filmmakers don’t know what to do with it and the narrative keeps on recycling the same scenarios. When the picture finally gets to its climax the filmmakers avoid the difficult or challenging implications of the premise and instead opt for a limp and largely unearned reaffirmation of faith, capping it off with a hokey group hug. The storytelling of Heaven is for Real is further hampered by some major storytelling blunders. When word of the heavenly experience gets out the family bcomes a target of desrision and the pastor’s job is threatened. The picture also spends a lot of screen time dramatizing the family’s financial challenges but this and the ridicule subplot are never resolved. Despite its slick look, the filmmakers do commit one cinematic sin: showing heaven. Whenever filmmakers visualize the hereafter it almost always looks stupid and the imagery of heaven in this picture looks like the cover of a Hallmark card.

Bottom Line: As a piece of cinema, Heaven is for Real is mostly well made, certainly more so than a lot of recent religious pictures.The filmmakers compromise the conclusion of their story in order to make it palatable to the widest possible audience but it will be a hit with faith based viewers and it will probably connect with a broader audience as well because of its softer sales pitch.

Episode: #488 (April 27, 2014)