As It is in Heaven (Overbay, 2014)

I’m amazed at the excellent art that can emerge from a Kickstarter campaign.  (Evidently, I still have at least one foot firmly planted in the 20th Century.)  With their debut feature As It is in Heaven, director/producer Joshua Overbay and his screenwriter wife Ginny Lee Overbay have scraped together enough funds and talent to create an intriguing story of a tiny cult.  On a deeper level, their tale prompts consideration of the continuum uniting acceptable religion and fringe groups.

In an interview with Christianity Today, Joshua Overbay related that, in making his movie, he relied heavily on his colleagues and students at Asbury University, a small conservative school in Kentucky where he taught until recently.  He also leaned upon the surrounding community to furnish the best actors willing to work without compensation, then completed all filming in 17 days.

Remarkably, within these constraints, the Overbays and company have crafted a fine film.  Or perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising; read enough interviews with directors, and you’ll discover a common refrain about the salutary potential of limitations.  And heck, which Kenneth Branagh movie would you rather watch again:  Henry V (with its trim $9 million budget) or Thor (a bloated $150 million)?

In an essentially exposition-free manner, As It is in Heaven opens by immersing us, literally and figuratively, into the world of its unnamed group.  In the beginning minutes, we witness them converge on a brook next to the home where all members live simply and communally.  There, the Prophet, also known as Edward, baptizes their most recent convert.  Announcing that Eric will no longer be called the name bestowed by his parents, Edward states that this young man will henceforth be known as David, meaning “beloved of God.”

A brookside baptism, in "As It is in Heaven"
A brookside baptism, in “As It is in Heaven”

A fade to black propels us forward one year.  Soon after proclaiming the imminent return of Jesus, Edward falls and badly injures himself.  Refusing medical care, he survives long enough to anoint David his successor.  This sets up one of Heaven’s two main points of suspense, since Edward’s son Eamon is instantly jealous of David’s new position and sows dissension among the faithful.

The next area of tension arises when David declares that by fasting for 30 days and devoting themselves intensely to God, the group will trigger the Second Coming.  The countdown then begins, as the Eamon/David power struggle continues.  Eamon has a ready ally in another cult member, Deborah, who understandably feels uneasy about withholding nourishment from her infant daughter.  Meanwhile, David has an ardent admirer in Naomi, who gladly spies on the dissenters.

David with Naomi (Abi Van Andel)
David with Naomi (Abi Van Andel)

Several factors positively distinguish Heaven from many other religiously-themed movies.  Commendably, the Overbays present their characters in an understated, nonjudgmental manner.  Though David, for instance, behaves reprehensibly at times, he is a fleshed-out, humanized individual, with wavering confidence and recurring nightmares that signal his insecurity.  Neither leader in Heaven is an oversexed, greedy, hypercharismatic David Koresh wannabe, but each is capable of gentle compassion.

Additionally, the simple style of the film befits the ascetic lifestyle of the commune.  Heaven‘s editing and cinematography show no overt flashiness, but nicely produce a Wyeth-like naturalism.  Ambient daylight and nocturnal shadows are effectively mimicked, with only infrequent musical accompaniment from a spare acoustic score (often a single plaintive violin).

David, praying in the shadows of the communal home
David, praying in the shadows of the communal home

Despite the absence of any marquee-level stars, the acting in Heaven is generally quite good, with only two unfortunate exceptions. Edward’s death scene came across as a bit hokey, and the outcome of one showdown is telegraphed well before its completion.

Where the Overbays really nail it, though, is in the plausible creation of their cult and its worldview.  For folks with any exposure to American Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism, familiar signposts abound.  At his father’s funeral, Eamon reads the well-worn words of John 14 (“Let not your hearts be troubled.”).  We hear snippets of classic hymns like “It is Well with my Soul.”  The overlapping prayers, hand-raising, and speaking in tongues of Heaven’s congregants wouldn’t be out of place in an Assembly of God gathering.

It’s safe to say that As It Is in Heaven will function as a Rorschach test for its viewers.  Where a reviewer for America’s flagship Christian publication lauds Heaven‘s portrayal of a sinister cult leader, this atheist critic sees merely an extreme example of the belief and behavior that all religions and their leaders display.

For instance, Edward changes Eric’s name to David, just as most religions offer a rebirth metaphor.  David’s language shows slippage between what he wants and what God wills, but hey, the writer of First Corinthians stated that Christians have the “mind of Christ.”

David prophesies an imminent day of judgment that will be glorious for his followers, but terrible for everyone else.  Can’t you find such dichotomizing utterances in nearly every sacred text?  The only difference is David’s erroneous certainty on the timing of the Second Coming, but some argue that one of the Gospel writers flubbed analogously in Matthew 16:28.

Edward shuns a doctor’s care in his terminal hours.  In the real world, scarcely a week goes by without hearing of Christians spurning beneficial “worldly” treatment for their mental or physical ailments.

David uses God to justify atrocious acts; Old Testament genocide, the sheltering of pedophile priests, or Charlie Hebdo, anyone?  Lastly, there’s the “rot” and “cancer” verbiage with which David describes the infidel, consistent with the demonizing, dehumanizing words employed by religions throughout history to label those outside their tribe.

The fact that Joshua and Ginny Lee Overbay have crafted a film that nourishes the mind and aesthetic sense of believer and atheist alike redounds to their credit.  Here’s hoping the Overbays resist the temptation to pander to a niche market in subsequent films, and continue to create artful, broadly appealing movies.

4 out of 5 stars

(Parents’ guide:  As It is in Heaven is unrated.  Given its moments of violence, I’d steer preteens to tamer fare.)

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