Review: ‘Heaven Is For Real’ Is Not Shameless Pandering, It’s Much Worse

Heaven Is For Real, And If You Don’t Believe Me You’re A Jerk

There was an old Dave Chappelle sketch from right around the time Antwone Fisher came out, where Dave wondered aloud how heroic his own life story might look if he was writing it himself, the way the real Antwone Fisher wrote Antwone Fisher. The subtext of which was, What kind of asshole writes a hagiographic biopic about himself?

The answer, of course, is “Todd Burpo.” Heaven is for Real might not be a biopic, exactly, but Todd Burpo is exactly that kind of asshole. Heaven Is For Real is based on the 163-page 2010 “book” (isn’t 163 pages more of a pamphlet?) by Burpo and Lynn Vincent, Heaven Is For Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story Of His Trip To Heaven And Back, which I’d like to think of the world’s first Upworthy headline. And now, it’s a Christploitation picture produced with the backing of Godless Hollywood, in the person of former Fox head Joe Roth, whose parents are literally atheist Commies, and mega-church pastor TD Jakes (seen here being palmed by Tyler Perry like a basketball). The cynical opportunism of the film is illustrated best by the fact that it’s constantly selling the idea of this fake cultural divide, despite being produced by a coalition made up of the supposedly opposing sides. But we’ll get to that.

Shot in a sort of Budweiser commercial/country music style of Heartland porn, with many, many sweeping shots of wheat and corn fields bathed in what I can only describe as a Kinkadian light, Heaven Is For Real opens with Todd Burpo taking his folksy Ford pick-up truck down to the local loadin’ dock to fix up their garage door. They don’t have money to pay him for it, but even though his family is struggling, ol’ Todd is just such a man of the people that he lets them pay him in rugs to put in his church. The film is a little confusing at first, if only because Todd seems to have so many jobs. In addition to a volunteer garage door repairman, he’s also a firefighter, a pastor, a wrestling coach at the local high school, and of course the loving father to a tow-headed cherub and faithful husband to a large-breasted, milk-fed redhead (Kelly Reilly, who, in the great tradition of Hollywood casting, is 14 years younger than the guy playing her husband, Greg Kinnear).

After driving his rugs to the church and showing the wrestling boys some of the finer points of the single leg takedown, Todd drives home through a gorgeous, fairy-tale expanse of golden wheat fields in his pick-up truck, arriving at his Hallmark mansion with wrap-around porch where his beautiful wife is singing church songs with the local choir. “Ugh, Mondays,” Todd mutters to himself. Isn’t life hard?! Sometimes your supple siren of a wife just won’t stop singing hymns! What a case of the Mondays!

That’s when we meet Todd’s loving, flaxen haired boy angel Colton, who’s always doing cute stuff like imitating a dog’s howl while the camera fixates creepily on his big blue eyes. He runs up excitedly to greet his daddy who tickles his belly and promises to take him out for pizza, just as soon as he’s finished comforting the dying at the hospital free of charge (I’m not making any of this up). The scene’s like a Rockwell painting, only less nuanced, and strangely unstuck in time. It feels like what it is: propaganda. Todd’s beautiful wife is always bribing him to do chores while whispering promise to make it up to him with some unspeakable (but presumably church-approved) sex act. SEE? GOD-FEARING MARRIED FOLKS CAN HAVE SEXY FUN TOO! THEY’RE PROBABLY HAVING SEXIER SEX THAN YOU!

Though supposedly about “a little boy’s trip to heaven,” about three of the film’s 100 minutes actually deal with the heaven trip, while the other 97 are devoted mainly to telling us what a stand-up guy Todd Burpo is, despite all the jerks trying to bring him down. Did you know he bravely held the family together, donated clothes to needy Mexicans, and became an inspiration to the community? Did you know he’s such a team player that he once spiral fractured his shin trying a leg out a triple in a charity softball game, or that he had to pass some kidney stones?

Seriously, a broken leg and kidney stones. At first I couldn’t figure out what the hell these plot points had to do with anything, but I now suspect they were a way to tell us that “God never gives you more than you can handle.” And who better to deliver this message than a guy with no real problems!? Even his son’s near-death experience seems little more than another way for Todd Burpo to demonstrate his will to overcome adversity.

Oh right, the kid. Casting Colton Burpo apparently took a nationwide search for the perfect little boy, and the result is this nauseating, overscrubbed figment of a casting agent’s imagination, after they’ve spent the last 10 years dealing only with freakishly wholesome pageant kids. Have you ever noticed how country heartthrobs and Disney Channel child actors always end up looking sort of like porn stars? Where you just keep scrubbing dirt and blemishes and idiosyncrasies off a person until you eventually realize that you’ve removed all the subtle markers of a unique human being and now you’ve got yourself this creepy human blow-up doll? Less a human than a human-shaped idea. This kid is like that, but designed for Fort Worth soccer moms (football moms? grrr, soccer is for Europeans!). It doesn’t help that in coaching the kid to be this preternaturally patient and knowing ethereal prophet of the afterworld that they’ve made him seem slightly… well… “special.”

But the kid is really beside the point. The marketing wants you to believe the movie is about the kid. It’s not. They want you to believe that it’s a long pander to the “religious right,” which it is, but it’s also so much worse than that.

You think this movie is going to be a shameless exploitation of peoples’ desire to believe in a Heaven (heck, *I* want to believe in a Heaven, I’d love it if heaven’s messenger was someone other than this asshole), but that’s only a small part of it. And that’s the good part!

Because it’s also a movie for people who’ve been duped into believing that America consists of an “us” and a “them,” made by people who profit off Americans being divided into an us and a them. The “real America” and those Godless haters on the coasts. It’s not about a little boy’s trip to Heaven, it’s about one man’s struggle against those bastard people who might question his beliefs after he’s dared them to. Why would he dare them to? So he can start a fight! Which he will win, because Jesus hands out knuckle sandwiches until everyone is full (from the book of Stone Cold Steve Austin, 14:20).

At one point, Todd’s daughter, Cassie Burpo is playing jacks or catching butterflies or engaging in some other horseshit Rockwell pastime at school when a couple of young toughs hit her in the head with a rubber ball. “Hey, Burpo!” they goad. “We heard your brother got to ride on Jesus’s pony!”

To which the young Burpette screws up her face, rolls up her sleeves, and decks them both. Later, at home, when Todd gets the phone call from the angry principal, he turns to his daughter asking, “Cassie, haven’t we talked about turning the other cheek?”

“I did turn their other cheek. When I hit ’em,” she says.

At this, people in the theater cheered with delight. This entire film is wish-fulfillment not for Christians, but for Christians with an intense persecution complex. And if there was any doubt that the filmmakers shared my fellow theatergoers’ point of view, Todd Burpo’s wife asks him, “Todd, are you going to talk to her?”

“Yeah,” he says, “I’m going to teach her how to punch so she doesn’t hurt her hand.”

WHY YOU HATIN, SATAN, SUCK THESE KNUCKS! Also, add “boxing trainer” to Todd Burpo’s list of professions.

By making Heaven is for Real all about the haters it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. You believe your kid went up to Heaven and came back? Cool, man. Fine by me. Like I said, I even want to believe. Yet the movie obsesses over this conspiracy to deny Todd Burpo’s beliefs, when even in the Burpo-authored movie reality, the only reason anyone thinks about them at all is that he never shuts up about them.

The perfect scene is when Todd first becomes convinced that his son has been to Heaven. His evidence for this is that Colton describes scenes he couldn’t possibly have witnessed in real life, like Todd yelling at God while Colton was on the operating table, and Colton meeting his miscarried sister his parents never told him about, and describing a great grandfather who died 30 years before he was born (though, to be fair, the kid didn’t even describe the grandfather, Todd just pulled out a picture of the dude and Colton said “yeah that’s him.”). Todd is struggling, so he finds a psychiatrist at the local university to ask for a second opinion. Could it be real?? Am I crazy?? He briefly lays out his case, asking “How can you explain this?”

The psych patiently offers a couple reasonable explanations, like the history of “out-of-body” hallucinations, and that maybe the kid was just imagining things he has seen his parents do. The key word being “offers.” She doesn’t push any of them on him, he just asks her for a possible explanation and she provides it. Nonetheless, Todd immediately jumps up from his chair asking, “Why is it so hard for you to admit you don’t have an explanation for this?” and storms off.

BURPO: “Hey, doc, is there any other explanation for this?”
DOC: “Well sure, I can think of a couple things it might be–”


There’s no wiggle room in Heaven is for Real. No symbolic gestures, no metaphor. Not only do you have to believe Todd Burpo, you have to believe him UNQUESTIONINGLY, or else you’re a Godless hater. (That’s one of the big reveals in the movie, actually, when a character who doubted Todd tearfully explains, “I realized it wasn’t you I was upset with, it was God.”)

Most people who don’t believe that Colton Burpo, a 4-year-old Nebraskan with a burst appendix who never flatlined or actually died, received a vision from God in the form of a visit to Heaven, where he saw Jesus ride a magic rainbow pony while angels sang to him, probably just assume that Heaven Is For Real is shameless but mostly harmless pandering. You want to sell hope and love and living without fear? Fine. Make all the money you want. Even if you’re terribly cynical about it it’s still probably a net good. Heck, give it an even more openly disdainful title. “God’s Not Dead.” “Heaven Is For Real.” “Jesus Was Definitely A Guy.”

But it’s not love that Heaven Is For Real is peddling. It’s not the kind of religious story that feeds you hot chocolate and warmly invites you into its community (the way a college Bible study group did for me when I passed out on their porch once in college). It’s a divisive paean to a bogus cultural divide created by a coalition of opportunists who don’t mind making money selling that same poisonous lie, the arms dealers of a pointless culture war.