If God wants you to go to Tonga, what do you say?
"Yes!" says John Groberg, an Idaho farm boy who deftly navigates a foreign culture as a Mormon missionary in Mitch Davis'sweet coming-of-age tale The Other Side of Heaven.
The film opens in 1953 at Brigham Young University, and Groberg (Christopher Gorham) is a young Mormon horn player who doesn't like that his girlfriend Jean (Anne Hathaway of The Princess Diaries fame) is dancing with another guy. So he hops off the stage and takes her to a nearby park -- where they clamber onto a children's swing.
Knowing that his years-long stint as a missionary is coming soon, he assures her: "We'll be under the same moon."
But what Groberg doesn't know forms the heart of this wry, gentle comedy. The young man who had never before seen an ocean would spend several months on the world's largest -- traveling to the tiny Pacific island of Niuatoputapu, part of Tonga. Preaching to a village in which only one person spoke English, he would find customs that were, shall we say, quite different from Idaho Falls. And he would miss Jean terribly.
Based on Groberg's memoir, The Other Side of Heaven is truly a family-friendly film.
For those weaned on racier fare, special effects and sarcastic retorts, the movie could be a snore. For those unaccustomed to a frank acknowledgment of one's faith, it could be a bit preachy.
But the humor is universal (what should a religious 19-year-old do when a local maiden takes off her sarong?), the Pacific Islands setting is spectacular, and the true-life story has its intriguing aspects.
Groberg faced real challenges 50 years ago. The island had no electricity or medical supplies, and villagers were left on the edge of starvation after a typhoon roared through and devastated the crops. Young Tongan women were sometimes sold for nothing more than cases of rum, and a rival preacher was none too pleased at Groberg's arrival, sending goons to beat him up.
The hurricane scene is particularly well done: Fierce winds turn corrugated tin roofs into horrifying projectiles.
Gorham, better known for playing Harrison on the TV show Popular, is well cast as the earnestly naive missionary who grows into a man any mother would be proud of. His Pacific Islands partner Feki (played by Tongan Joe Folau) delivers some good chuckles as he tries to keep Groberg out of trouble.
The movie was a labor of love for first-time writer-director Davis, a BYU graduate who went on a mission to Argentina. This low-budget film is so professionally done in such exotic locales (New Zealand and Rarotonga in the Cook Islands) that no one would ever think it was accomplished by a rookie.
[This review by appeared in the HOUSTON CHRONICLE, with a letter grade of B-, and in THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION, with a letter grade of C, under the headline "A sweet coming-of-age story with a mission." The COURIER-JOURNAL of Louisville, Kentucky gave the film 2 1/2 stars. The ABILENE REPORTER-NEWS gave the film 2 stars out of 4. The original Associated Press article contains no letter grade.]
"The Other Side of Heaven," a misguided title, chronicles the story of a young Mormon missionary's three years on an island in the South Pacific after leaving Brigham Young University (BYU) in 1953.
Based on a memoir titled, "In the Eye of the Storm," the film is a sweet-natured and fitfully edifying biopic -- although not all that enlightening on the fine points of missionary service and Mormon doctrine.
The subject of the movie is John Groberg, now an elder in the Mormon Church.
He arrives in the Tonga archipelago, instructed to "learn the language and build the kingdom." (The film was shot, for the most part, on the island of Rarotonga in the Cook chain. Auckland, New Zealand, doubled for the American locations.) An elderly pastor seems reluctant to tolerate upstarts and competition for most of the film.
"Heaven" is directed by Mitch Davis (a graduate of BYU). It does quite a bit of leapfrogging across a three-year timespan, leaving several aspects superficially accounted for, at best. On the other hand, the director gets considerable pictorial advantage from such crises as a hurricane and a shipwreck.
One would need to consult Elder Groberg about the circumstances that led to his rescue after being shipwrecked. Mr. Davis sort of overlooks that aspect of the shipwreck episode. The young pastor and two fellow castaways seem to wash up on the tiniest of atolls, so it's a little cavalier of the filmmaker to take their return to the home island for granted.
The movie may have lapses, but its subject matter, tropical setting and performers prove consistently disarming. You grow fond of the Ichabod Crane gawkiness of Christopher Gorham as young John Groberg and the Aussie-tinged accents of the Maori, Samoan and Tongan performers cast as the members of his flock.
The director's flair for stirring interludes and moments becomes evident at the outset, in a sequence devoted to the college courtship of John Groberg and sweetheart Jean Sabin, played by Anne Hathaway, the delightful discovery of "The Princess Diaries."
The movie gets off to a flying start with a jitterbug number, placing Jean on the dance floor and John in the campus jazz band playing his trumpet and itching to cut in. A stunning nocturnal image of Jean swinging across the glow of a full moon ends the episode and establishes a pictorial link across the ensuing years of separation on opposite sides of the world. The two will be under the same moon, even if the western United States is a long way from the South Pacific.
John precipitates a cultural crisis on his island by resisting the overtures of a native beauty, Lavinia (Miriama Smith), but he explains himself to the satisfaction of the girl's irate mother, who is stung that the seemingly eligible newcomer has denied her family the potential status upgrade of a marital alliance, or merely the birth of a "half-white" child.
The hero's inhibitions seem even more judicious when a later episode exposes one of the shames of the island: the arrival of a New Zealand ship whose crew members take it for granted that girls can be purchased for a case of booze.
An accumulation of tentative but heartfelt relationships allows the movie to simulate an illusion of genuine community by the fadeout, when an impromptu chorus of "God Be With You Till We Meet Again" marks John's departure from his flock.
An epilogue provides a bit of updating, along with photographs that document certain real-life prototypes for the movie's characters across the decades. For example, the Grobergs are documented by a wedding photo, circa 1957, and a recent vacation snapshot on the island in the Tonga chain.
"The Other Side of Heaven" marks a welcome departure from the not-so-heavenly fare that comes from Hollywood.
TITLE: "The Other Side of Heaven"
RATING: PG (Fleeting violence and allusions to prostitution)
CREDITS: Directed by Mitch Davis. Screenplay by Mr. Davis, based on the book "In the Eye of the Storm" by John Groberg.
RUNNING TIME: 113 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS
"The Other Side of Heaven" (Excel Entertainment) is an earnest portrayal of a young Mormon missionary who travels to the remote island of Tonga to preach the word of God.
Based on the true experiences of Elder John Groberg (played by Christopher Gorham), a farm kid from Idaho, the film is very likeable despite its flaws. It begins at Brigham Young University around 1953 where 19-year-old Groberg woos his true love Jean (Anne Hathaway) and prepares for his upcoming missionary assignment. Soon after, Groberg crosses the ocean to become a missionary in the exotic Kingdom of Tonga. Once there, he is told to "build the Kingdom" and convert the natives of Tonga into Latter Day Saints, despite having few resources or any knowledge of the language. It is inspiring, especially for the faithful, to watch Groberg accomplish all of this, even in the face of personal hardship and natural disaster.
First-time writer-director Mitch Davis avoids the typical mistakes in adapting biographies of this sort. The Tongan people are not portrayed as savages nor is Groberg a know-it-all white man out to erase their culture by "civilizing" them. However, Davis does falter by white-washing the story to a point. Suspicion among the natives quickly dissipates, and Groberg, a foreigner preaching strange things, is accepted a little too easily, especially after he miraculously saves a little boy's life. And this becomes the films format: a villager is injured or hurt in some way and Groberg comes to the rescue. And sweeping music overpowers the film, cuing audience reaction instead of enhancing the natural progression of the story.
As a central character Groberg is compelling, firm in his conviction and sincere in his efforts to reveal Jesus Christ to the people in this remote village. And Gorham plays him in an appealing manner. Yet, viewers may feel something missing from his character development: his personal insights, his insecurities, his foibles, his quiet moments of doubt about God -- particularly when faced with starvation after a deadly hurricane. These revelations would have gone a long way in helping an audience make a personal connection with Groberg.
Nonetheless, the sincere film, with its top-notch special effects (done on a tiny $7 million budget) is fine family entertainment and marks a definite uptick in Christian filmmaking.
A few scenes may be too intense for the very young.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops classification is A-I -- general patronage. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG -- parental guidance suggested.
From the very beginning, it is clear "The Other Side Of Heaven" is different. Different in a very good way. Set in the mid 1950's - a time when everyone was just a little more innocent - it tells the true story of John Groberg. Played by actor Christopher Gorham, he is a young man not only in love with the girl next door but his religion as well. So much so he heads off to remote Tonga to spread the word of God. I loved this movie, it has humor, love, adventure and real spirit. It is directed by Denver resident Mitch Davis. This is Mitch's first directing job. I'm sure we will be hearing a lot more about Mitch in the years ahead. The film is rated PG and I highly recommend it.
*** (3 out of 4 stars)
The Other Side of Heaven represents a major step forward in the trend of Christian filmmaking. This is a film with an agenda, but it doesn't allow its agenda to get in the way of telling a good story. On the contrary, the filmmakers have enough faith in their story to let it tell itself - and they've endeavored (successfully) to tell it well.
Based upon John Groberg's memoir In the Eye of the Storm, the film is the story of real-life Mormon missionary Groberg (Christopher Gorham). In 1953, Groberg was called to serve the Lord - and assigned to establish a mission in the Kingdom of Tonga. His orders were simple: "Learn the language and build a kingdom."
It's a long way from Idaho to Tonga as young John discovers, and he's not always sure of himself. But he's always certain that there's a higher power watching over him. Gorham's earnest but endearing performance drives home the character's idealism and resilience - and effortlessly gets the film's point across.
Throughout the film, there's the recurring sense that John is actually doing something, and not just mouthing platitudes. The natives of Tonga are not portrayed as converts-in-waiting, but as proud people who view John with a mixture of curiosity and wariness. Director and screenwriter Mitch Davis keeps the onscreen drama level and credible throughout, and he even incorporates some welcome humor into the proceedings. During one scene in which John is baptizing converts, one of the natives must be gently dissuaded from smoking one of the local crops as a celebratory gesture.
The "big-name" actor in the cast is Anne Hathaway of last year's surprise hit, The Princess Diaries. She plays Jean, John's college sweetheart, whom he writes to often (thus supplying the film with some occasionally flowery narration). It's a fairly thankless role, but Hathaway's got charm to burn, and she makes Jean someone worth waiting to come home to.
By avoiding the pitfalls of pretentiousness or repetition, The Other Side of Heaven is engaging, informative and - yes - even inspirational family fare.
Stars: Christopher Gorham, Anne Hathaway, Joe Folau, Miriama Smith
Director: Mitch Davis
Rating: PG, violence, sexual innuendo and disturbing imagery
Burger's Opinion: Effective, entertaining Christian drama depicting the early career of a Mormon missionary (Gorham) in the 1950s.
Some things you just have to accept on faith.
Including the life-altering impact of the experiences that inspire "The Other Side of Heaven," produced by ex-Disney executive John Garbett and Las Vegan Gerald R. Molen, one of the Oscar-winning producers of "Schindler's List."
A fact-based account of a young Mormon missionary's adventures in the South Pacific, "The Other Side of Heaven" boasts breathtaking scenery, an exotic setting and a kinder, gentler message that's particularly soothing in these turbulent times.
What "The Other Side of Heaven" doesn't possess, however, is a compelling sense of purpose, an energy and edge that might lift it above the merely pleasant and into the realm of the powerful.
It's a nice story, to be sure, filled with earnest, well-meaning people trying to do good and be better.
All too often, however, we observe their actions without ever sharing their emotions.
It's an extension of the old "show, don't tell" conundrum. "The Other Side of Heaven" shows us, all right, but watching it feels like you're perusing a scrapbook full of pretty pictures rather than experiencing what's going on in those pictures.
This particular scrapbook -- inspired by the memoir "In the Eye of the Storm" by John H. Groberg, now a prominent Mormon leader -- begins with a page devoted to campus life.
When we first meet Groberg (Christopher Gorham), an Idaho farm kid attending Brigham Young University in the 1950s, he's up on the bandstand playing trumpet during a sock hop, fuming while his girlfriend Jean (Anne Hathaway) dances up a storm with a flashy rival.
Their budding romance must be put on hold, however, when Groberg receives his mission assignment to the remote island kingdom of Tonga.
After an arduous three-month journey by land and sea, Groberg at last reaches his far-flung destination, accompanied only by his faithful Tongan companion Feki (the energetic Joe Folau), who translates for the newcomer and tutors him in island ways.
Yet some things Groberg must tackle on his own. Whether he's dealing with a hostile rival minister, overcoming potentially devastating injuries or trying to save village children from calamity, the young missionary relies on his faith to see himself -- and others -- through assorted ordeals.
"The Other Side of Heaven" relates these incidents in episodic fashion, using Groberg's letters to Jean as a narrative device.
Whether comic (Groberg's early, malaprop-prone efforts to speak the local language) or dramatic (tropical storms and other acts of God), the movie maintains a leisurely, almost meandering pace, treating each challenge with the same mild-mannered approach.
That adjective also applies to the movie's characters. Even in conflict, they're fundamentally decent, well-intentioned folks.
But, making his debut feature, writer-director Mitch Davis never quite manages to make them -- or the movie -- much more than that.
As a result, Groberg's spiritual coming-of-age seems perfunctory and underdeveloped. We may hear him describe his experiences in his letters home to Jean, but we never share them emotionally.
Despite this fundamental drawback, "The Other Side of Heaven" offers some positive compensations nonetheless.
With Rarotonga in the Cook Islands standing in for Tonga (and New Zealand for everywhere else), Davis and director of photography Brian Breheny capture lovely tropical vistas, resplendent sunsets and glimpses of island life that prove far more inspiring than some of the movie's overtly spiritual episodes.
Speaking of overt spirituality, it's a blessing to see a movie that focuses on religious issues without resorting to heavy-handed proselytizing. Groberg happens to be a Mormon missionary, but he could be representing any group trying to spread a specific version of the Gospel.
And in that, at least, "The Other Side of Heaven" practices what it preaches, delivering positive messages of tolerance, understanding, self-sacrifice and compassion that, alas, seem more timely than ever.
If only "The Other Side of Heaven" could make its tale as memorable for those of us watching it as it must have been for the people who actually lived it.
An Idaho lad sets out to save souls in an earthly paradise
In the 1950s, John Groberg, an Idaho youth and member of the Mormon Church, accepted missionary duty to the Kingdom of Tonga, South Pacific islands east of Fiji.
Groberg's assignment to learn the language and build the empire is the basis of The Other Side of Heaven, a paean to service, community and cross-cultural understanding. It has the added attraction of being photographed on location on the island Eden of Rarotonga.
The film may be faulted for perhaps understanding Americans better than Tongans, and it may be faulted for not characterizing the islanders' belief system before Groberg's arrival. But it is inspirational in characterizing how people from such diverse cultures share the same human and spiritual needs. Though the islanders initially mock the white man, his dedication to learning their language and culture earns their respect and love.
Christopher Gorham (of TV's Popular) gives an appealing performance as Groberg, and Joe Folau is likewise excellent as Feki, a Tongan assigned to help Groberg in his mission.
About the Movie
The Other Side of Heaven
** 1/2 (2 1/2 stars out of 4)
for thematic elements and brief disturbing images
Christopher Gorham, Joe Folau, Anne Hathaway, Miriama Smith, John Sumner
With its gorgeous tropical sunsets and slick production values that set a new standard for faith-based films, the piously rendered "The Other Side of Heaven" is aimed squarely at audiences most receptive to its message: that spreading God's word is one of the most noble endeavors a person can pursue.
That message certainly will fall on fertile ground in the Central Valley. And in a world in which secular Hollywood pumps out enough gore, sex and bad language to choke a ratings board, it's no surprise that religious-themed films are targeting their own niche markets.
This fact-based tale of 19-year-old Mormon missionary John Groberg, who had never even seen the ocean before he traveled to Tonga in the 1950s, is a sweetly spiritual affair more interested in lushly orchestrated moments of inspiration than narrative or characterization.
In that sense, "The Other Side of Heaven" isn't as interesting cinematically as the more rough-hewn "Brigham City," another recent offering from distributor Excel Entertainment. That film -- about a serial killer in a small Utah town, of all things -- was firm in its spiritual values but more nuanced. "Brigham City" gave us a multifaceted glimpse of its Mormon characters, warts and all. It even included a "nonbeliever" asking some tough questions about faith and God.
"Heaven," based on Groberg's book "In the Eye of the Storm," is content to preach to the choir. It plays out as if Groberg were standing to the side during the filming, making the producers extra careful to portray him as a saint without a trace of human fallibility. (Groberg, now a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, had reservations about adapting his book into a movie and had a lot of input in the production.)
Still, "Heaven" has a solid emotional impact. And with a budget of $7 million -- minuscule by blockbuster standards but hefty for an independent film -- director Mitch Davis got a lot of bang for his buck. The production has a far more polished and professional feel -- and more spiritual oomph -- than such recent Christian special-effects offerings as "Megiddo: The Omega Code 2."
When Groberg (Christopher Gorham) gets his missionary call, he makes the treacherous journey from Idaho to one of the Tonga Islands. There, with help from a native Tongan named Feki (Joe Folau), his mission companion, he has to get used to a whole new way of life, including learning the language, killing mosquitoes and protecting his feet while he sleeps from hungry rats. (He still manages to wear the trademark white shirt with tie, however.)
At the same time, he has to try to keep his relationship alive with Jean (Anne Hathaway, of "The Princess Diaries"), who's waiting for him back home. Though she's pursued by another suitor, it's a mark of Groberg's youthful cockiness that he never much worries that she'll wait for him.
Gorham, a Fresno native and Good Company Players alumnus who starred in the WB series "Popular," has a cheerful, boyish appeal, and he develops a strong bond with the island residents. The film's production values are slick, including a raging storm that nearly snuffs out the islanders. While the narrative never fully develops -- there's little sense of a story arc beyond stringing together anecdotes -- it's endearing to watch the farm-fresh main character slowly adapt to island life.
If "Heaven" has an irritation, it's the missionary's self-confident sense of righteousness that borders on pompousness. Though there's another Christian minister on the island, Groberg in the film never pauses to consider his beliefs. And there's never any question that the "great white missionary" is anything but the answer to the natives' prayers -- we never even see any evidence of their own religion.
Then again, a mark of faith is the certainty of one's own beliefs. And in that regard, "The Other Side of Heaven" never strays.
"The Other Side of Heaven" (PG)--Solid, unfussy acting and gorgeous scenery help this ultra-earnest tale of a missionary in the South Pacific. Based on the memoir "In the Eye of the Storm" by Mormon Elder John H. Groberg, the film chronicles his three years on the island of Tonga. He sees illness, injury and death, none of it depicted graphically.
Steeped in 1950s white-bread sensibility and ploddingly episodic, the movie is unlikely to hold the interest of kids younger than 10. Older ones may find the island culture--and culture shock--worth a look, but they may also jeer at how writer-director Mitch Davis patly resolves every crisis.
"Changing Lanes" (R)--A slick lawyer and a down-on-his luck insurance salesman lock horns in this smart morality play, which mixes a spiritual message with Wall Street pragmatism. A relatively mild R, for profanity, it could spark a fine debate among high schoolers.
Ben Affleck plays Gavin, a cocky lawyer. Late for an important meeting, he leaves the scene of a car accident, dropping an essential file. The man he hit, a recovering alcoholic named Doyle (Samuel L. Jackson), is made late for a hearing and so loses joint custody of his kids. Angry and desperate, he won't return the file. Gavin, who's a mass of conflicting moral impulses, destroys Doyle's credit rating, then tries to undo the damage.
"The Sweetest Thing" (R)--Inappropriate for anyone younger than 17, but likely to attract them, "The Sweetest Thing" is a mindless, sometimes funny romp that hides its good nature beneath a crude veneer. With soft-core raunch that will surprise many a parent, it features semi-explicit sexual situations and jokes about oral sex, sexual organs and stained dresses. Cameron Diaz plays Christina, a flirty San Francisco single. Her roomies (Christina Applegate and Selma Blair) yearn for real relationships, and after Christina meets Peter (Thomas Jane) at a club, so does she. A road trip to crash his brother's wedding involves disasters and skimpy lingerie.
"Frailty" (R)--A genuine creep-out, "Frailty" explores the murkiest reaches of the human mind and is not appropriate for anyone younger than 17. Well-acted but unpleasant, it deals with serial murder, insanity and the perversion of faith and parenthood. The murders occur mostly off camera, but the sight of an ax or gun just before it hits the victims--and the sound as it does--is quite enough.
Matthew McConaughey plays a haunted fellow who walks into the office of an FBI agent (Powers Boothe) and identifies a killer. Their conversation sets off flashbacks from his childhood, when his dad (Bill Paxton, who directed) decided that God wanted him to kill "demons"--a bloody crusade in which he makes his sons complicit. Such a dark tale requires a poetic or profound core, but "Frailty" lacks that and betrays its own morality with a weird final twist.
U.S. Release Date: 4/12/2002
*** [3 out of 4 stars]
Playwright-director Neil LaBute reaped a lot of press by uncovering the dark side of Mormonism in "bash: latterday plays." Now, writer-director Mitch Davis offers a far more upbeat view of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in "The Other Side of Heaven," an absorbing adventure based on John H. Groberg's memoir, "In the Eye of the Storm."
Christopher Gorham (of TV's "Popular" and "Felicity") plays Groberg, a naive Brigham Young University graduate who journeys from his cozy home in Idaho Falls to the wild tropical paradise of Tonga in the mid-1950s for a three-year-long stay as a missionary. On the tiny island of Nivatoputapu, Groberg finds few potential converts, but plenty of disease-carrying mosquitos and a good deal of suspicion.
Success in reaching the natives comes through working with a bilingual assistant named Feki (Joe Folau) and making a few compromises: After a while, Groberg's suit and tie give way to a sarong and bare feet. The episodic story is tied together by Groberg's correspondence with his girlfriend Jean (Anne Hathaway of "The Princess Diaries"), who waits for his return.
In its combination of religion, love story and exotic locales, "Heaven" is a bit reminiscent of James Michener's "Hawaii," although this is a somewhat simpler, more personal tale. While, as both screenwriter and director, Davis' comic touch is slightly heavy, he tells the story effectively and gets commendable performances from the ingratiating Gorham. Hathaway's role is regulated mainly to voice-overs, but she's appealing in her few scenes.
Even the non-faithful in the audience will be moved by cinematographer Brian Breheny's eye-filling shots of Tonga, where the sky and the water appear to be every possible shade of blue, and by Kevin Kiner's lovely score, which feels tailor-made for the visuals.
'Other Side of Heaven' true story of young missionary in South Pacific
** (2 out of 4 stars)
"The Other Side of Heaven," now at Star City and Northway Mall, tells the true story of how John Groberg spent three years of his young adult life as a Mormon missionary in the South Pacific island of Tonga.
His spiritual journey unfolds one small step at a time rather than in one sudden flash of revelation, which does not necessarily lend itself to the steady pacing or the dramatic tension that movie audiences often demand.
As a result, "The Other Side of Heaven" requires more patience than many filmgoers will be able to muster, although it will certainly have appeal to many of those looking for clean family entertainment and an inspirational message.
Christopher Gorham portrays Groberg, who hails from Idaho. We first meet him at Brigham Young University, where he is playing trumpet for the rock 'n' roll band at the school dance (it is supposed to be 1953, when rock 'n' roll was still below the radar in many parts of the country) and trying to romance pretty Jean Sabin (Anne Hathaway).
He seems a bit impetuous, but he fulfills his duty when he receives his missionary assignment to Tonga. It takes him a while to get there -- the churchmen who are supposed to meet him at his various stops along the way don't show up -- and it's sink or swim when he finally arrives, not knowing the language and having only his companion, Feki (Joe Folau), to help him.
But when he gets tired of feeling sorry for himself, he commits himself to learning the language by memorizing a translation of the Bible. Various scenes follow in which he begins to win the hearts and minds of the villagers by manifesting God's work through his faith.
We get to know the islanders as the movie progresses, but the film remains episodic in nature until a storm ravages the island and provides the sternest test of survival yet. People go on to be saved in different ways from various potentially horrible fates.
Groberg matures into the job, but it is the islanders who change the most. His progress is measured largely in the exchange of letters between him and Jean -- Hathaway ("The Princess Diaries") is mostly heard and not seen in this movie.
At one point late in the film he writes to her, "There is a connection between heaven and earth. Finding that connection makes everything meaningful, including death. Missing it makes everything meaningless, including life." At last, the movie breaks through the strictures of narrative and reaches us on a more profound plane.
But most of the time, writer-director Mitch Davis seems mired in the mundane, even if one understands that, as the movie hints, it takes time for the eternal verities sink in.
This is one movie in which a thousand pretty pictures (the movie was shot in New Zealand and Raratonga) may be worth less than a few well-crafted words.
The third feature in as many years from Salt Lake City's Excel Entertainment is a fine specimen of clean-cut Mormon family entertainment, but it may also be a step in the wrong direction for the fledgling production company. Excel's strongest asset thus far has been Richard Dutcher, the talented writer, director and actor who, with God's Army and Brigham City, staged compelling, more or less universal dramatic situations -- crises of faith and family -- in LDS settings. The Other Side of Heaven is the true and intrinsically fascinating story, as told in letters to his sweetheart back in Idaho, of young Elder John Groberg's three-year mission promoting "God's plan of happiness" on a remote Tongan island. Unfortunately, Mitch Davis, a better than competent first-time director with a skilled editor (Steven Ramirez) and a crackerjack special-effects team, gets so sidetracked as a writer by the need to touch all the theologically correct bases, he throws away most any appeal this material might have had for the unconverted. And who knows? Even the converted may balk at the opening sequence, a flashy Saturday-night-dance number in which Brigham Young University, circa 1952, looks like some kind of Jitterbug U. set-piece from Grease 3. (Ron Stringer)
"The Other Side of Heaven," the tale of John Groberg's Mormon missionary work on the Tonga islands in the 1950s, captures a breathtaking exotic landscape cluttered only by the smugness of its characters. For its target audience, namely members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, "Heaven" will be held up as justification for a whole worldview. For others, it will be a statement of religious imperialism and cultural superiority.
Either way, Groberg's character (played with heart by Christopher Groham) could use some humanizing. Even Jesus experienced temptation, but Groberg -- although likable - comes off so squeaky-clean that he's difficult to identify with. He's not sexually tempted by any of the natives, although they throw themselves at him, and he learns little from the cultural exchange, save "don't sleep with your feet uncovered or the rats will eat the soles of your feet."
With such as [sic] intense light focused on his spirituality, his humanity disappears. He's cast as a religious Superman figure shipped to the "savage" Tonga islands to heal children and rescue babies. And while the natives are folded into the story, they still only hang around to reveal that, yes, Groberg was right about God, the world and everything.
2 1/2 stars
"The Other Side of Heaven"
MPAA rating: PG (thematic elements, brief disturbing images)
"The Other Side of Heaven" is so relentlessly wholesome it made me want to swipe something.
A virtual ad for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, "The Other Side of Heaven" tells the true story of a Mormon kid (Christopher Gorham) who travels to the Pacific island of Tonga in the 1950s for a three-year mission. All the while, he sends letters home to his sweetheart, describing the natives he baptizes and the crises he, wholesomely, averts.
Don't get me wrong. There's nothing wrong with wholesome. But "The Other Side of Heaven" is bland and do-goody in a way that seems certain to turn off the young audience to whom its story of teen-age love might appeal. Our hero delivers lectures on temperance, abstinence and community service in between saving souls and -- in one case -- a life, accompanied by a score that reminded me of the music they use in commercials where busy families discover a creamy new margarine.
Gorham is not bad, but the clunky, episodic script has him conquer one disaster after another in a way that feels like a five-episode marathon of some uplifting TV show. And are we supposed to believe the shots of his white-clad sweetheart, resting on a white couch in an all-white room that makes it look like she has a walk-up apartment in heaven? Or that the Tongans would spontaneously begin speaking English the moment an American shows up?
The shots of Tonga are awfully pretty, like a Conde Nast Traveler "10 Island Getaways" spread come to life. But when a movie's best moments are when everybody shuts up and looks at the ocean, that's not a good sign.
Rating: * 1/2 (1 1/2 stars out of 4)
Though The Other Side of Heaven (Excel, opens April 12) is to Latter Day Saint proselytizing what Top Gun was to Air Force recruitment, this adaptation of John H. Groberg's memoir of his Tongan missionary years is strangely coy about its denominational allegiance. Indeed, for the first hour, Mormonism is the faith that dare not speak its name (Groberg's pa is cryptically referred to as "the only Democrat in Idaho Falls"), and the non-tithers among us must work with the evidence: the sock hop at BYU, the absence of crucifixes, the frosty reception given "Elder" John (Christopher Gorham) by the island's other Bible-thumper. Perhaps even the SLC high command found writer-director Mitch Davis's wall of kitsch hard going. Despite sole-gnawing rats and a woman of color up for a roll in the ferns, the white man's burden has rarely seemed lighter; straight-arrow John never wavers in his devotion to church and stateside squeeze (Anne Hathaway). When the mother of John's would-be seductress pleads for a "half-white baby," he shows her a picture of his beloved. Overcome with shame, the woman commences to sob.
John Groberg (Christopher Gorham), the narrator and hero of "The Other Side of Heaven," is a Mormon missionary dispatched to the Tongan islands in the Pacific Ocean immediately after his high school graduation in the 1950's. Although the movie, inspired by Mr. Groberg's memoir "In the Eye of the Storm," is supposedly based on fact, any resemblances between its characters' behavior and real people are glancing.
An earnest, shining-eyed idealist who exudes the dewier-than-thou sanctimony of the young Robbie Benson crossed with Tom Cruise at his most podlike, John speaks entirely in smug, sugary platitudes. Many of those cliches are voiced in letters he writes to Jean (Anne Hathaway), the high school sweetheart he leaves behind while saving souls in the Pacific. As John endures one adventure after another, the movie periodically cuts away to show Jean in a billowing white dress like a creature in a perfume ad, waiting patiently for his return.
What sets this syrupy swatch of kitsch apart from other films peddling a dogmatic religious agenda is the serious money that obviously went into it. The movie, written and directed by Mitch Davis, was filmed on Rarotonga in the Cook Islands and in Auckland, New Zealand, and its tropical sunsets and turquoise seas are balm to the eyes. The movie, which opens today in New York and New Jersey, stirs up a raging but phony-looking hurricane (aren't Pacific hurricanes known as typhoons anyway?) and a tempest at sea whose mountainous waves rival those of "The Perfect Storm" in altitude. In both scenes, the lightning machine works overtime.
But the movie's vision of a white American zealously spreading a Puritanical brand of Christianity to South Seas islanders is one only a true believer could relish. The Tongan natives resemble a 1950's National Geographic cliche of childlike pagans being taken in hand by wiser, smarter Westerners. When the prettiest girl on the island impulsively sheds her clothing and offers herself to John, he averts his eyes and solemnly lectures her about true love and saving herself for one man, then leads her to the beach to pray. The girl's mother is angered by John's rejection of her daughter until he pulls out a snapshot of Jean and starts prating about eternal love.
Beyond pushing its religious message, the movie is too scatterbrained to maintain much narrative continuity. One small example: early in his adventure, John wakes to discover that the soles of his feet were gnawed by rats while he slept. The Tongans gently remind him he had been advised to sleep with his feet covered. Later in the film there is a scene in which scores of Tongans are shown sleeping outdoors. All are barefoot.
"The Other Side of Heaven" is rated PG (Parental guidance suggested) for discreet discussions of sexual behavior.
Directed by Mitch Davis
PG, 103 minutes
** (2 our of 4 stars)
Easier to sit through than the typical, earnest Christian movie, "The Other Side of Heaven" tells the true, inspirational story of John Groberg, a Mormon missionary from Idaho who spent three years in the South Pacific in the early 1950s.
Christopher Gorham, a Josh Hartnett ringer from TV ("Felicity"), does well as Groberg, who arrives in the remote Tongan Islands at 19 and struggles with the language, disease and the customs of the local natives.
Obstacles are too easily overcome and there isn't much in the way of character development in the script (based on Groberg's memoirs) by writer/director Mitch Davis, who nevertheless keeps things moving at a brisk enough pace for family audiences.
The most notable elements are gorgeous New Zealand scenery, elaborate special effects (including a "Perfect Storm"-style boat capsizing) that belie the modest $7 million budget, and brief appearances by budding star Anne Hathaway ("The Princess Diaries") as Groberg's girlfriend back home in Idaho.
You want family and friends to have worthwhile vacations.
But there's not much drama in their relentlessly upbeat two-hour description, the boastful subtext of which is how shrewdly they spent their time and money. Good vacation yarns are about lively misadventures.
Movies, too, need conflict. The ethically admirable "The Other Side of Heaven" has dramatic highlights including a hurricane, starvation and a capsized boat in shark-prone waters. If only the film were as dramatic as it sounds and as moving as it is well-intentioned.
Unlike the earlier, well done "God's Army," which depicted the day-to-day trials of being a Mormon missionary in the States and living with sometimes annoying colleagues, "The Other Side of Heaven" is eventful but not compelling.
Adapted by director Mitch Davis from John H. Groberg's memoir, "In the Eye of the Storm," it tells of a period from 1953-56, when John, who is 19 at the beginning, was sent to Tonga, near Samoa, to learn the language and build a Mormon kingdom.
The first few minutes are stuffed with narrated factual data that is then abandoned. John (Christopher Gorham) is the oldest of seven sons of a close, loving family. Their father was so unusual in being a Democrat in Idaho Falls that he was selected to meet a president passing through -- Harry Truman.
John's fiancee, Jean Sabin (Anne Hathaway of "The Princess Diaries"), is religious, too, and fully supports his mission to Tonga.
They're as chaste as the couple in the recent "A Walk to Remember" and in thousands of pre-1960 movies.
Davis' narrative mentions, but doesn't depict, John's delays reaching Tonga -- an accurate and concise way to speed into the odyssey, but all too representative of what will follow.
With only the most token resistance from the Tongans, John masters the language with just one ho-ho faux pas, and quickly ingratiates himself with his sincerity and his ability to resurrect a child whom everyone thought dead.
Eschewing liquor and immodest behavior of any sort, he wears a tie and white shirt throughout his years there.
John swats at an occasional mosquito, eats octopus without flinching, deports himself with unfailing tact and generosity. Inexplicably, he does not awaken the night rats chew the soles off his feet, which is neither depicted nor explained.
After every couple of scenes, he receives a loving letter from Jean, who is effusive in her support, even when she doesn't hear from him for stretches. When he agrees without hesitation to extend his stay by six months, she's as enthusiastic as he.
Faith, which for decades has been a marginalized theme in movies, obviously is at the root of what's going on here, but it's treated as an abstraction rather than conveyed.
For all of his considerable sincerity, writer-director Davis doesn't bring spiritual zeal to life. He needed to study "The Nun's Story" (1959), the most mature study of religiosity, for cues on building a drama that trusts us to appreciate lapses into doubt, frustration and isolation.
"Heaven" has one of those dots-connecting screenplays that gives us the road map of an odyssey but not the experience of it.
When a superior arrives and calls John on the carpet for failing to keep written documents on all of his work, John is respectful and flummoxed. Document everything? But nobody said... He shuffles through some sheets and in the morning hands the superior a stack of completed paperwork a foot high.
When near the end the islanders get a huge old console radio, 1930s vintage, Davis cuts to an objective shot of dozens sitting around listening to "The Lone Ranger," but without a trace of wonderment or of the world shrinking at that moment.
The film is highly suitable for a family audience, but moviegoers in search of a fully satisfying drama about a good man will find instead an illustrated homage to the sort of life we no longer grasp on faith alone.
** 1/2 (2 1/2 stars)
The premise of The Other Side of Heaven seems unbearably haughty: A 1950s white guy sails halfway around the world to convince an island of heathens that his religion is their salvation. Mormon missionary John Groberg (Christopher Gorham) even is "assigned" a faithful, brown-skinned companion, Feki.
The taint of racism rears up at a number of occasions in Mitch Davis' film, based on true-life missionary Groberg's memoirs. Feki (Joe Folou) never gets to be called "elder" like Groberg, or even called a counselor, although he has converted himself and works beside John for years helping to convert others. He's eventually relegated to construction work. (The film's credits carry on this theme: Anne Hathaway receives star credit over Folou, although she's barely present in the film as Groberg's beloved back home in the States.)
But somewhere along the way, this prayerful, predictable island adventure becomes more, well, bearable. Gorham (TV's Popular), as Groberg, is sweetly naive in his portrayal of a believing missionary soul. His Groberg honestly wants to serve, and makes a meaningful connection with the people of Tonga (portrayed by New Zealand Maori, Tongans and Samoans). Alongside them, he battles mosquitoes, starvation and storms. Their isolation helps keep the dogmatic annoyances of religious hierarchy at bay.
Daily struggles and simple pleasures usurp the preaching message so that, by the time the credits roll across the pat ending, a warm, fuzzy feeling prevails.
Apollo Score: 59
Readers' Rating: 64 (2 votes)
With The Other Side of Heaven, first time director Mitch Davis is trying too hard. He wants to cause his audience an epiphany, yet he refuses to give us real situations and characters. Of course, defining the word "real" is up for debate, as the word can mean different things, depending on the context. I say this movie isn't 'real' because it doesn't sufficiently develop the human complexity that it portrays. Though the film is based on fact (John H. Groberg's published memoirs, In the Eye of the Storm), it isn't presented properly. This subject matter needs a presentation that demands more than audience participation, but also characters to whom we are properly introduced -- so we can know and understand them.
In a display of gross romanticization, we meet John and Jean (Anne Hathaway) in capsule form. His big band trumpet skills befit the climate that surrounds him -- the noise of his instrument gives sound to the other unheard adolescent voices of the 1950s. His counterpart, Jean, is equally suppressed and desire-laden. Davis decides to tell his story by giving a gossamer representation of their love. At the same time, he attempts to build his protagonist with mystique and heroism. At a local dance, John can only stare at Jean through his peripheral vision as he tends to his musical chore, whaling on the trumpet. Jean plays along, dancing with an unspecified boy -- a ploy intended to create suspense. A platform is constructed for the film's protagonist to become a hero by swooping offstage to reclaim what was already his. Building on such valiant behaviour, our artificially produced hero walks his prize to a nearby lake, which comes replete with the dazzle of moonlight. The film's hero has no other choice but to trip over such a blatant visual set-up. He recites 'Hallmark' poetry about the moon -- "Do you know how far that light had to travel just to be on you? It was worth it."
Before we barely know these kids, Davis expects us to sympathize at the mention of their upcoming split. John has signed on to be a missionary for his local church and is assigned to the remote Tongan islands. What ensues is Davis' attempt to cheat his audience, as he replaces human complexity with surface stereotype. John answers every calamity by playing his trumpet, or finding fulfillment with platitudes that seem empty to an audience with actual life experience. Davis makes Frank Capra look like a gritty neo-realist, stealing all his schmaltz and magnifying it times 100.
John and Jean write one another, but this dialogue doesn't work because of the underdeveloped human complexity. Viewers will be lucky to find realism in the young pair's light giggles, let alone their discussions of marriage. For a couple so serious-minded, the inclusion of Jean dancing with another young man proves undermining to the sentiment Davis intends.
The same unreality is true of the hardships presented John by the foreignness of the Tongan islands. His character is too eager to embrace complacency -- too eager to exist within the blue ink of the 1950s comic strips in which the characters are just as foolishly wholesome and cliche.
Nonetheless, The Other Side of Heaven is a film that's relatively easy to watch. This is made so by some wonderful acting by the leads. Just as spectacular, and ultimately the saving grace for the film, is the turns put forth by the bit players -- who are organic and unselfconscious -- the adhesive holding this film together.
Years ago if you wanted to see a movie celebrating the Christian faith, you had to settle for something that probably cost $50 to produce.
Not that it mattered much to the target audience -- it was the message that counted.
In recent years, however, real professionals have begun contributing to the genre, and some of these films are given relatively wide release. With higher budgets and a commitment to at least focus the camera, these movies are giving the faithful a reason to go to the multiplex again.
Whether they appeal to anyone else is another matter entirely.
"The Other Side of Heaven" arrives courtesy of Mitch Davis, a Mormon writer and director who enlisted the help of Oscar-winning producer Gerald R. Molen ("Schindler's List") to tell the story of Elder John Groberg. Now a leader in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Groberg worked as a missionary on the Pacific island of Tonga in the 1950s and related his adventures in a 1993 memoir In the Eye of the Storm, on which this movie is based.
Christopher Gorham (formerly of TV's "Popular") plays John, an easygoing 20-year-old who, in accordance with Mormon tradition, accepts an assignment to leave his home and help "build the empire." This also means leaving behind his girlfriend, Jean Sabin (Anne Hathaway of "The Princess Diaries"), who is fending off another suitor in John's absence.
John has plenty to keep him busy as he deals with everything from a nasty rival minister to a devastating storm.
Filmed on location in the Cook Islands, "The Other Side of Heaven" captures both the beauty and danger of its natural setting, with gorgeous, almost magical landscapes hiding nasty surprises such as rats that gnaw on people's feet at night. Davis deftly blends drama and humor in conveying John's early struggles to comprehend this new environment.
After that the movie becomes increasingly episodic, and it's apparent that Davis simply filmed events from Groberg's book without giving them flow or context. There's not much tension because all potential conflict is casually brushed aside.
You could easily blame Gorham's passive performance for this, but the material doesn't give him much choice. Mormons often have been stereotyped as bland, and this movie won't dispel that image. John is so strait-laced that his tie doesn't even move during a hurricane.
It falls to the actors playing the islanders to provide some personality, but Davis seems intent on draining the life out of them; by the end of the film, they're all wearing those blasted ties, too.
Therein lies a nagging problem. Despite its good intentions and high production values, this is basically a story about a noble white guy "saving" simple-minded natives from their own primitive culture.
John truly comes to love these people, but does he respect them? Maybe he does in real life, but to the filmmakers the islanders are doomed until they put on the uniform.
That notion may resonate with some viewers. To others it's likely to seem like preaching to the choir.