“The Other Side of Heaven” is an account of Mormon general authority John H. Groberg’s missionary experiences in Tonga in the 1950s, based on his book, “In the Eye of the Storm.” It is mildly uplifting and reasonably enjoyable, but lacks the emotional or spiritual power that, say, one of Elder Groberg’s general conference talks might have.
Adapted and directed by Mitch Davis, “Heaven” faithfully tells the stories from Groberg’s mission as if faithfully telling the stories from Groberg’s mission is all it needs to do. It starts with the beginning of his mission, ends with his homecoming, and in between is full of healings, baptisms and South Pacific islander shenanigans — but no sense of purpose. Groberg (played here by Christopher Gorham) does not appear to change or grow over the course of it. He is friendly and righteous and rather non-descript to begin with, and he’s that way at the end, too.
The blame for the lack of dynamics is shared between Davis the writer/director and Gorham the actor. The script is episodic, moving from one event to another with little sense that any of them are having any lasting effect, and no sense of building toward something in particular, plot-wise. There’s very little adversity that isn’t overcome quickly and easily; the closest thing the movie has to a “villain” is a bureaucratic mission president — and he immediately apologizes for it.
Even when emotional depth might be called for, Gorham doesn’t do it. Sure, he cries a couple times, and Groberg does some amazing act-of-faith kind of stuff. But Gorham’s attitude throughout is so blandly go-with-the-flow — almost cavalier — that we wind up liking him, but not knowing him.
To his credit, Davis has control of his craft in terms of making things look good. No amateur (despite this being his first feature film), Davis makes good use of beautiful locales, has an able cast of actors, and doesn’t let the pace slow down too much. A couple storm sequences are very exciting. This all makes it a decent film, if not a great one.
To be interesting or memorable, movies must be driven by plot or character. Either we like the stuff that’s happening, or we like the people it’s happening to. The best movies do both. “The Other Side of Heaven” does neither. Nothing happens, and it happens to flat characters. It is not beyond enjoyment, but it is so soft and weak-willed that it’s not liable to live in anyone’s heart for longer than it takes to watch it.
C+ (; )