The Other Side of Heaven

on December 14, 2001 by Wade Major
   Recent years have seen a dramatic increase in the number of independently-made and -distributed movies dealing with religious subjects, most of them niche-marketed to their core audiences with only cursory effort at finding interest among more mainstream filmgoers. Efforts to target a crossover audience for “The Other Side of Heaven,” however, look promising thanks to the uplifting fact-based story and the exotic appeal of the South Pacific locations.

   Produced by Oscar winner Gerald R. Molen (“Schindler's List,” “Jurassic Park,” “Rain Man”) and former Disney executive John Garbett, “The Other Side of Heaven” is based on the memoirs of John H. Groberg, a high-ranking leader in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints who spent three years as a young man during the 1950s performing Mormon missionary service among remote Tongan islanders. Christopher Gorham of television's “Popular” stars as Groberg, a motivated but innocent Idaho farm boy who leaves his girlfriend Jean (Anne Hathaway of “The Princess Diaries”) in the lurch with only vague promises that, upon his return several years later, they'll be able to pick up where they left off. After several months of hop-scotching from ship to ship across the Pacific, Groberg finally arrives at his assignment: a small Tongan island where believers are few and the clumsy ways of white westerners widely ridiculed. Fortunately, Groberg is assigned a native for a companion, a strapping youth named Feki (Joe Folau), who helps Groberg overcome linguistic and cultural barriers to eventually begin finding his place with the people.

   Most of the film, from this point forward, is episodic in nature--Groberg and Feki struggling to spread the message of their faith while dealing with hostility from a rival minister, illness and injury, the wrath of nature and romantic insecurity on the part of Jean who, through her letters, begins having doubts about “picking up where they left off.” One feels, at times, the veneer of an old-fashioned ‘60s melodrama in the proceedings with more than a few passing similarities to James Michner's “Hawaii” thrown in for good measure. Such qualities will invariably endear the movie to some and alienate others, depending on their disposition to such affectations. In the end, though, it's all in the interest of an undeniably uplifting story, made all the more inspirational by the fact that it's true.

   Though made with limited resources and relatively little money for a film of this scale, “The Other Side of Heaven” has a big-film feel to it, thanks to the work of first-time writer/director Mitch Davis and cinematographer Brian Breheny, whose lensing of the New Zealand and Cook Island locations captures both the beauty of the land and the people. Highest praise as well for the outstanding supporting cast of relative unknowns, most of whom were culled from New Zealand, Tonga and Samoa.

   Whether or not it's all enough to assuage the apprehensions of filmgoers who normally shy from faith-based material remains to be seen--such barriers have traditionally been formidable, though not entirely insurmountable. And if it comes down to details making a difference, “The Other Side of Heaven” can claim a decided edge.    Starring Christopher Gorham, Anne Hathaway, Joe Folau, Miriama Smith and Nathaniel Lees. Directed by Mitch Davis. Written by Mitch Davis. Produced by Gerald R. Molen and John Garbett. An Excel release. Drama. Rated PG for thematic elements and brief disturbing images. Running time: 113 min.

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