So old-fashioned that it seems fresh, this fact-based family drama about a young Idaho missionary's adventures in Tonga highlights two groups that have been almost invisible in recent movies: Polynesians and Mormons.
When I was a kid in Southern California in the 1960s, Polynesian influences were everywhere -- tiki torches, pu-pu platters, Don Ho's "Tiny Bubbles." Los Angeles was full of veterans who had fought in the Pacific and remembered our Islander allies fondly. Now, though, most things Polynesian are considered hilariously kitschy, while we seem to assume that surfing was invented by the Beach Boys.
Although the successful Salt Lake City Olympics may have somewhat quelled irrational prejudices against Mormons, anti-Mormonism remains more socially respectable than anti-Semitism or anti-Catholicism. In a 1999 Gallup Poll, 17 percent of Americans admitted they wouldn't vote for a Mormon for President, compared to 6 percent who wouldn't vote for a Jew.
Written and directed by Mormon auteur Mitch Davis and produced by one of Hollywood's few Mormon insiders, Gerald R. Molen (who won a Best Picture Oscar for "Schindler's List"), "The Other Side of Heaven" represents an impressive step forward for Mormon cinema in sheer watchability.
My adolescent son initially reacted to the movie the way he responds to everything we take him to these days. "Can't I just go wait in the car?" he whined. Yet, within 10 minutes he was watching with great interest.
Although "The Other Side of Heaven" downplays the distinctiveness of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, making the Mormons look like just another Christian denomination, the $7 million dollar movie has been a smash in the Mormon states of Utah and Idaho. Since December, it has earned $2 million in the Great Basin -- the equivalent of $150 million nationwide. It is opening nationally this Friday in about 300 theatres.
Davis wisely hoarded his limited effects budget during the first half of the film, and then splurged in the second half. Just when you are no longer expecting to see anything spectacular, along comes a cyclone, some gorgeous helicopter shots of volcanic Rarotonga Island, and a nightmarish computer-generated storm at sea that's scarier than the one Tom Hanks battled in "Castaway."
Christopher Gorham (of TV's "Popular") looks authentic as 1953 BYU graduate John Groberg, because the likeably gawky star is one of the few young actors who doesn't pump iron. Groberg must leave behind his girlfriend -- played by the lovely Anne Hathaway (star of "The Princess Diaries") -- which adds some needed romantic tension. Leaving a young lady who looks like that on her own for three years shows either great faith or great stupidity.
Pacific Islanders are among the world's best kidders, with a long history of bamboozling outsiders into believing silly stuff. Anthropologist Margaret Mead was the most famous victim. In the 1920s, she went to Samoa to prove a lot of progressive theories about the effectiveness of social engineering. Her Samoan contacts had a good time making up whatever she wanted to hear, which she credulously recounted in her hugely influential -- but bogus -- bestseller, "Coming of Age in Samoa."
Somewhat similarly, the Tongans at first find "Elder Groberg" -- as the adolescent-looking youth is comically called throughout the movie -- to be a figure of fun. Being warm-hearted and polite, though, they struggle to keep it to themselves, although Groberg's insistence on wearing a geeky short sleeve white shirt and necktie doesn't help.
Although he never goes native enough to shed the tie, Groberg begins to fit in, as he learns to speak Tongan and stops wearing shoes (at which point, the soles of his feet get gnawed by rats). As the once-callow lad and the islanders survive the unpredictable natural disasters endemic to this seeming paradise, a warm bond grows between them.
In adapting Groberg's autobiography, Davis stuck a little too close to the sporadic reality. Near the equator, apparently, stuff happens -- storm, famine, concussion, lockjaw -- but all rather randomly. While each episode is entertaining, the movie never builds much dramatic momentum.
In the most intriguing incident, a local beauty throws herself at Groberg. He fends her off, but later, the girl's mother angrily upbraids him for not impregnating her daughter. He doesn't have to marry her, the Tongan matriarch explains; just give her "a half-white baby." Groberg, raised in a religion that hold fathers to a rigorous standard of child support, is flummoxed by the tropical assumption that a dad's main duty is to provide genes rather than support.
Now, that's diversity.
Rated PG. Unlike the 1966 James Michener movie "Hawaii," the island maidens are fully dressed.