The Other Side of Heaven
review by Gregory Avery, 19 April 2002

Whatever else there is about The Other Side of Heaven, it has what will probably become one of my most favorite opening scenes for any film this year. The camera follows close behind some college-aged guys and gals as they rush up the steps of a building, rush through a set of doors, and then plunge into the midst of a jitterbug dance that's in full swing with a live band accompaniment. Only then does a title appear on the screen: "Brigham Young University, 1953. BYU might've been a little staid when I was there, but, from the looks of this film, at this time at least, it really knew how to jive.

One of the band members, playing trumpet, spots a girl dancing near the bandstand, and jumps down and decides he's going to dance with her. He deftly cuts in between her and the guy she's already dancing with. The other guy, then, cuts in on him. The cutting contest continues apace, with both of the guys (and the girl they're dancing with) really knowing how to move on the dance floor. It gets the movie off to an exhilarating start, which carries through into the next scene, when the trumpet player, John (Christopher Gorham), strolls with the girl, Jean (Anne Hathaway, recently of "The Princess Diaries"), concluding with their kissing beside a reflected moon -- the energy of the previous scene seems to chase away any corniness that might've arisen out of this. It's too good to last, though. John gets a letter, at his home up the road in Idaho Falls, informing him of his LDS mission assignment, to Tonga, and the movie almost immediately thereafter falls apart into what will become an exasperating mess.

John is shipped out, back and forth across the Pacific, for eighty-three days, before arriving at the island where he is to serve. Without any explanation, he arrives with no knowledge of the native language or customs. The only way he's going to talk to the people about the Gospel is to learn along the way. (The film does not indicate if the Mission Training Center, through which all young men must pass before going out into the mission field, was in existence at this time or not.) There is a pre-existing LDS ward on the island, but it is only hazily defined regarding its membership or size. A rival minister is on the island, as well, but, except for a couple of scenes, he's out of sight for most of the film.

The Tongans are depicted as being simple, remote and rather unknowable, and they're virtually undifferentiated. What do they think about this white guy coming to them and telling them that they must convert to this particular religion? (John's native-born mission companion says at one point that, if John came all this way to talk to them about it, than what he says must be true.) How does it relate to their existing way of life? By comparison, Richard Dutcher, in his 1999 film, God's Army, at least gave us some idea of the pattern and structure that made up the lives of the missionary characters he depicted, and which in turn gave us some understanding as to what their work meant to them and how it affected their lives. In this picture, we aren't even sure how long John's supposed to be out on Tonga. Two years? Four?

Even when he's starving to death after a typhoon, letters fly back and forth between John and Jean -- who, for some reason, never saw him off when he left the States (if a girl isn't going to see her guy for several years straight, she's going to see him off) -- and she appears, occasionally, walking along the shoreline in a flowing white dress and throwing chastely flirtatious looks at the camera. In the meantime, a native Tongan girl (Miriama Smith) approaches John and, as an act of veneration, offers herself to him, and John is shown going buddity-buddity and doing everything except saying the most obvious thing -- that he can't have sex while serving a mission. "Take a day off!" the girl's mother exclaims, but John isn't shown coming up with a quick answer to that, either.

Although based on a real-life person, John, in the movie, is a rather dull person to be stuck with for two hours, and at the end, Gorham, who has been coasting by on the strength of his ingenuous face and strong eyebrows and cheekbones, doesn't look any different when he leaves the island than he did when he arrived. The miasmic ending, which is supposed to show John and Jean finally entering into matrimony after waiting for a good deal of time, is capped by a title card which informs us that the real John and Jean got married in 1957 (which would make John's mission a four-year one), after which they went right back out and performed more mission work among the peoples of the Pacific. John is shown as coming from a large family whose offspring included a total of five brothers alone, plus some sisters. Didn't John and Jean, two strapping, healthy young people, want to start a family of their own? Have some kids to whom John could pass on his experiences among the Tongans, something not a whole lot of people in Idaho Falls would have a chance to do? What exactly did John get out of his experiences with the Tongans? The Other Side of Heaven ends with a scene where John is put up for the night in a modern hotel room, while on his way back to the States, and, unable to use the bed, rolls out his sleeping mat on the floor and goes to sleep there. It's a scene which another motion picture would have used as just the starting point for telling a more richer, insightful story. Here, the quality that charmed John and Jean into going back to the south Pacific never communicates through to the audience.

Written and 
Directed by:

Mitch Davis

Starring:
Christopher Gorham
Anne Hathaway
Joe Folau
Al Fitisemanu
Miriama Smith

Rated:
PG - Parental
Guidance Suggested
Some material may
not be appropriate
for children

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