The new film “Sunrise in Heaven,” released April 9 on DVD, juxtaposes the closing chapter of a long-married couple’s love story with the early days of their budding romance. Steve (Randy Crowder) and Jan Hurst (Bonnie Burroughs) are still very much in love and looking forward to enjoying their retirement years together, when an automobile accident puts Steve on life support and leaves Jan facing the increasing likelihood that her husband will die. Adapted from Jan Hurst’s novel His Sunrise, My Sunset: A True Story of Love and Loss, the film alternates between scenes of an older Jan at the hospital, with her adult daughters Terri (Jenn Gotzon Chandler) and Michele (Erin Bethea) at her side, and flashbacks to the couple’s challenging courtship in the 1960s. “It just flashes back and forth — to present day, to the past,” Gotzon Chandler told The Southern Cross during an April 1 telephone interview, and the film “really opens up our hearts to understand the power of faith, love and perseverance.” Forty-six years before the accident, Jan and Steve meet in the commissary at Vandenberg Air Force Base in Santa Barbara County, California. Steve, as a new recruit, is instantly smitten with the girl serving him mashed potatoes in the lunch line. But her stern father (portrayed by Corbin Bernsen), a chief master sergeant on the same base, has forbidden her from dating military men. Jan, who demonstrates a willingness to fight for the relationship when her father stands in its way, is similarly determined not to give up on Steve after the accident, even when doctors tell her that the situation is hopeless. For some viewers, the idea of a love story set in two distinct eras — partly a periodpiece showcasing a young couple’s perseverance; partly a tear-jerker with that same couple confronting their mortality in the present- day — will evoke memories of the romantic drama “The Notebook.” But, perhaps unlike most films about young love triumphing against the odds, “Sunrise in Heaven” firmly roots that romance in the Christian faith. As they deal with their trials, young Jan turns to an Air Force chaplain for spiritual counsel.
Almost 50 years later, in the hospital waiting room, she invites her daughter to pray with her that Steve’s surgery will be successful. Christian faith is presented as something that has been deeply intertwined in Jan and Steve’s story from the beginning. Far from some trinket, the cross seen dangling from their rear-view mirror in the aftermath of the crash represents what has been the cornerstone of their lives. Gotzon Chandler explained that putting God first in a relationship creates “a foundation that is life-lasting.” Without such a foundation, she said, “it’s a little as if you’re standing on sinking sand; you could just slide in and fall through.” She contrasted such a precarious situation with “that beautiful bond that [Jan and Steve] were able to cultivate together.” Gotzon Chandler said that, when loved ones die, faith allows a person to experience “peace that surpasses understanding” and to believe that “you will be reunited with them when your sunrise in Heaven comes.” Of course, that doesn’t mean that even the most committed Christians will be doubtfree when tragedy strikes. Gotzon Chandler’s character, Terri, remains fairly resolute in her faith, she said, while that character’s sister, Michele, spends most of the film “skeptical that God is really, truly going to come through” for their family; Jan’s first response is trust, but her initial confidence is shaken as she begins to wonder whether God is listening to her prayers or even if He might be punishing the couple for something. For Gotzon Chandler, the film’s title — “Sunrise in Heaven” — gives voice to “a question we ask in our heart, in the quiet of night: Where am I going to go when I die? Do I know Jesus? Who is Jesus? What is the promise of Jesus?” “Life is difficult; it’s messy,” she said, “but if we can find God’s love in the darkness, we’re going to be able to breathe again and we will find that sunrise in Heaven.”