In Little Miss Sunshine, Greg Kinnear plays a father of two desperately trying to keep his family together with their failing finances, all while trying to be the “cool dad” he clearly isn’t. Kinnear plays it perfectly (and has done this in countless other movies). In the abysmally titled Heaven is for Real, he’s been cast as essentially the same character and plays it the same way. The only problem is that the movie plays everything like he really is the cool dad, making it hard to take things all that seriously. And that’s before the annoying kid shows up with visions of Jesus riding a horse and a heaven where no one wears glasses.
Todd Burpo (the real name of the man Kinnear plays, who wrote the book of the “true story” the film is based on) is a pastor, wrestling coach, firefighter, and garage door mechanic amongst god knows what else. All the movie really want to tell you for the first half hour is how great this guy is, before getting into the real crux of the film. Burpo’s four-year-old son Colton (the insufferable Connor Corum) has a near-death experience and claims he saw heaven, a claim Burpo passes off as kids being kids at first. But when the things Connor tells him he saw become more and more impossible, Burpo begins to wonder what his son really saw.
There’s a good portion of the film that, if the music was swapped out, could play as a horror movie. The film is far from that though; it’s one of the most overly sentimental and cloying movies I’ve seen in some time. As a character, Colton is maybe the most grating example we’ve seen of the pretentious little kid who gives advice to adults, and the entire plot of the film is really just him saying things he saw and various adults arguing over if they’re true (the antagonist of the film, if any, is Margo Martindale as a grieving mother of a dead soldier). Tonally, the film is all over the map, going from a scene where Burpo in immense pain from passing kidney stones is played for laughs to Colton having a 104 degree fever being treated as the worst thing to ever happen to humanity.
It’s hard to take much of anything here seriously, but the story of the Burpo family became a nationwide sensation when the book hit, and the film is poised to somehow do the same. If the film didn’t claim to be true and didn’t act so self important it might be tolerable, but it would still have a pretty weak self-awareness and one of the most excruciating child performances since the first Star Wars prequel.
Review by Wesley Emblidge