- The Washington Times - Friday, April 12, 2002

"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


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