Reviewer: Charity Bishop
"There is a connection between heaven and earth. Finding that connection gives meaning to everything, including death. Losing that connection makes everything lose meaning, including life."
While I might not agree with Mormonism on a theological level, I believe in the same basic principles. Therefore I was able to look beyond personal prejudice to the heart of this film -- an exceptional true story of one young man's courage in the face of adversity, his willingness to save himself for the woman he loves, and his touching ability to encourage the greatness of God in the unsaved natives of the Tongan islands. The Other Side of Heaven is a true story. It's the mid 1900's, and John Groberg is preparing for his four-year mission trip as part of his growth into an "elder" in the church. The love of his life is beautiful Jean (Anne Hathaway), who has many admirers but agrees to wait for his return. Eagerly John waits for his instructions... he's to sail to the islands of Tonga, with two basic goals in mind -- learn the language, and "build a Kingdom." (In other words, resurrect a church.)
The trip goes far from well. In all the docks he's put off at, no one seems to have been aware he was coming. He even winds up in prison on an obscure island for several hours before missionaries come to his rescue. Accompanied by his Tonga-speaking companion Feki, John is determined to make an impact on the lives of those inhabiting "his" island. But it proves far from easy. Missionaries of other denominations have warned the Tongans against listening to them. The bugs are intolerable. Rats like to gnaw on sleeping children. Hurricanes wreck devastation. His knowledge of their language is nonexistent, and often gets him laughed at. Through all his trials and tribulations, his moments of equal strength and weakness, this courageous young man perseveres, forcing himself to adapt, to learn to love the natives, to speak their language fluently. He prays diligently, he gives up worldly possessions, he even performs miracles. A constant reassurance are Joan's wonderful letters from home. Thousands of miles may separate them, but they're under the same magnificent night sky.
There is much to like about this film, even though without a good basic understanding of the Mormon church you might be lost in terms like "kingdom," "elder," and even why John is going in the first place. Some content issues do make this strictly older-teen and adult fare, as well as some of the questions it will raise about the Mormon church in general. (Remember, in order for deceptive teaching to be accepted, it must be just a hair from the truth!) The character of John Groberg is exceptionally likable. You start off enjoying him purely as a cinematic presence, but through his actions and choices grow to respect him. He's not perfect, but his faith is strong, his convictions rule over his emotions, and he never fails to point people toward God. When tempted by a beautiful young native girl who literally throws herself at his feet, he tells her there is a Love much stronger than physical desire and never ends -- the love of Jesus Christ.
When her mother blames him for not "taking" her daughter, and providing them with at least a half-white baby ("You don't even have to get married!" she pleads with him), John tells her he's promised to save himself for the woman he's going to marry. He shows her Jean's picture, and the woman immediately understands. What's more, he encourages her to help her daughter remain virtuous -- to wait for the man who will love her for the rest of her life. I have never heard such a powerful abstinence message in a film before. Mild implications of tribal prostitution (girls are shipped out to a boat in return for caskets of alcohol, along with various mild dialogue), Lavina dropping her skirt and offering herself to him (the camera avoids anything explicit, and John looks away), and her mother's brief coarse dialogue on why John won't take her daughter, never cross the PG rating but should be kept from very young audiences.
There's no profanity, but thematic elements -- including a young man's violent death, storms at sea, characters nearly drowning, and a hurricane which leaves the islanders in devastation, nearly starving before help arrives -- are present. John leaves his feet uncovered one night and wakes up to find them drenched in blood. Rats have gnawed on his feet. The cure is painful -- direct sunlight, and a few graphic glimpses are given of the damage. A child vomits (implied) as John attempts to bring him back to life after a fall. Some of the 50's style swing dancing shows a lot of flashing skirts and slightly suggestive dance moves. After being escorted to the bathroom by a group of tribal warriors, John wonders what it'll be like when he takes a bath -- and the scene cuts to him screaming in a tub while children race in to "help" him bathe.
But even with the mild content issues and skewed theology (although it never enters directly into the plot, and most people would be hard pressed to distinguish between the Protestant faith and what John preaches) I feel The Other Side of Heaven is an exceptional film. Many Christians have shunned it, but I intend to support it. It's sweet, romantic, funny, encourages virtue, involves scripture reading, invokes the name of Jesus Christ respectfully, and stands for something. That's more than I can say for a lot of films Christians rave over.