The Other Side of Heaven is a charming, sweet movie about a young missionary of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the 1950s. John Groberg (Christopher Gorman, TV’s Felicity), eldest of seven boys from Idaho Falls, Idaho, is sent to do his required three-year missionary service to one of the islands in the Tonga kingdom in the Pacific Ocean. He leaves behind his beloved girlfriend, Jean (Anne Hathaway, Princess Diaries), who promises to wait for him. First-time director Mitch Davis has crammed Heaven with fabulous cinematography and plenty of action, including a terrific and terrifying hurricane scene. It was filmed in New Zealand and the Cook Islands with a supporting cast of primarily Maori and Samoan actors who are absolutely wonderful — notably Joe Folau (The Whole of the Moon) as Feki, Groberg’s native companion. In essence, the story is about a nice young Mormon who stays nice — no matter how lovely the native maidens are (Miriama Smith, TV’s Atlantis High) — and eventually adds toughness, courage and sensitivity to his essential goodness. Like the movie’s time frame, Heaven’s mise en scene is a throwback to the ’50s: There are no special effects, no explosions, no terrorists, no crime, no sex — and, to the movie’s credit, there’s no overt preaching, either. But there’s also no dramatic structure — no real live-or-die obstacle that thrusts the hero relentlessly through the movie, and no bad guys (the liquor-selling sailors don’t count because the hurricane wipes them out in the next scene). Nature is occasionally violent and destructive, but more often it’s benign. It’s not even a man-against-himself story, because never once does the young missionary doubt himself or his mission, and never once, in all the 500-some days of his adventure, does he lose faith in God. Sure, it’s tough to convert people (we won’t even get into the whole issue of the arrogance of Euro-Americans thinking they have the right, much less the responsibility, to change native peoples’ religions), and it’s hard to live through the vicissitudes of nature and loneliness, but in Heaven, those challenges are merely episodes. A string of episodes, no matter how beautifully filmed, does not a movie make. Mitch Davis has made an admirable debut as director; next project up he should hire someone instead of himself to write the script. Heaven’s greatest value is the portrait it creates of Pacific Islanders in the halcyon days before electricity. I don’t know of any other movie that has so well detailed the culture of this remote and beautiful part of the world at that specific time. What legacy, good or bad, American missionaries have left on the islands is the stuff of another story.
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