At the box office this weekend, “Captain America” and the animated “Rio 2” took the top two spots, as many expected, but coming in third – surprise! – was a Christian-themed film called “Heaven Is for Real.”

This marks the second time this year a faith film has exceeded expectations, after “God’s Not Dead” accomplished the same feat earlier.

And with its $28.5-million take, “Heaven Is for Real” holds the doubly delicious distinction of trouncing Hollywood icon Johnny Depp’s film, ironically titled “Transcendence,” which made only about $11 million.

Box office numbers aside, the success of “Heaven Is for Real” really shouldn’t be that much of a surprise. It’s based on a popular book of the same name, stars recognizable actors and, perhaps most significantly, features the fingerprint of one Randall Wallace.

Wallace, perhaps best known as the man who wrote “Braveheart,” also had a hand in writing “Heaven Is for Real” and took up the mantle of director on the film as well. It marks only his fourth stint in the director’s chair, but Wallace’s track record is impressive, with a list of outstanding movies: “The Man in the Iron Mask,” “We Were Soldiers,” “Secretariat” and now, “Heaven Is for Real.”

And as we saw in the exemplary film “Secretariat,” Wallace understands that even heavily Christian films don’t have to be heavy handed, that the story should never take a backseat to the message and that cheese belongs sprinkled on your popcorn, not sprinkled through your movie.

“Heaven Is for Real,” at last, is a Christian movie you don’t have to apologize to invite your friends to, whether they believe or not. It isn’t cheap, cheesy or preachy. It’s acted well, focuses on characters you learn to care about and asks challenging questions that won’t leave an unbeliever feeling bashed over the noggin with the Bible.

In short, this is the Christian movie we’ve been waiting for ever since we saw what was possible with “The Passion of the Christ.”

To be honest, it’s not a perfect movie (but then, neither was “Passion”), and I have a minor theological bone to pick with one scene in particular. But if you think of it as a conversation starter, rather than a conversation ender, it’s hard to imagine doing better than “Heaven Is for Real.”

The based-on-a-true-story movie follows Pastor Todd Burpo, whose son is taken suddenly ill and nearly dies. But after the boy recovers, he tells stories of visiting heaven, sitting on Jesus’ lap, and most controversially, seeing people in heaven whose earthly lives may or may not have suggested their presence in paradise.

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The movie expertly weaves in a series of challenging questions, such as “Is heaven a hope, or as real as the earth and sky?” and, “What if you have an encounter so far out of your own experience that it’s irrational? What then?” and, “Why would God give you your son back and take mine away?”

None of these questions are given pat, Sunday school answers, and that’s a good thing.

Best of all, the film follows in an important, relatable way Burpo’s struggle to believe his son. Even though he’s a pastor, there’s a difference between preaching the existence of heaven and affirming his son’s visions as reality. When the rubber hits the road, Burpo discovers his son’s experience really kicks the tires of his faith. It’s a struggle anyone in the audience can relate to, regardless of theology – or lack thereof.

I do have a minor qualm with a statement made during a cemetery scene that could suggest a form of universal salvation, but I’ll admit I may be reading into it too much.

Audiences are left instead with a film that affirms faith and family and forgiveness, hope and healing. In the end, audiences simply have to wrestle with the questions brought up by any person’s testimony: Namely, that this happened to me, this is why I believe, and it’s up to you process why I say, “Heaven is for real.”

Content advisory:

  • “Heaven Is for Real” is rated PG and contains only two minor profanities, with no obscenities.
  • The film’s sexuality consists of a small amount of leg and cleavage, some kisses and some suggestive flirting between husband and wife.
  • There is some minor violence, including a badly broken leg with some blood, a playground fight and throwing items about the kitchen in rage. The scenes in the hospital could be very intense for small children, hence the PG rating.
  • The film is loaded with religious content, including songs, short sermons, depictions of “heaven,” angels and Jesus. There is no occult content.

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