Eighteen years ago, Mitch Davis made “The Other Side of Heaven,” a gentle and moving look at the life of a young missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — a movie that set the box office record, $4.7 million, for a theatrical release of what was called the “Mormon cinema” boom. (Hiring a pre-fame Anne Hathaway as a lead didn’t hurt.)
Turns out 18 years was the right amount of time to wait to return to that story, because “The Other Side of Heaven 2: Fire of Faith” shows how Davis’ storytelling has matured as he relates a poignant story of faith tested by adversity.
Like the first movie, the new one is based on the memoirs of John H. Groberg, now 85 and an emeritus general authority for the LDS Church. The first movie showed Groberg’s experiences as a young man, leaving his home in Idaho Falls and his girlfriend, Jean, in the 1950s, to be a missionary in the Pacific island nation of Tonga.
The new movie is set in the late ‘60s, as Groberg is a bishop for the church in Idaho Falls, married to Jean, with five daughters and a sixth on the way. Now, as then, Groberg is played by Christopher Gorham, who has maintained the goofy charm he exhibited before but also carries the gravitas and maturity that 18 years gives a person.
Groberg gets the assignment from Salt Lake City to become the mission president in Tonga and surrounding islands. His job will be to oversee 200 missionaries on 40 islands in three countries, where they speak five languages. Despite warnings that Tonga is a dangerous place to raise five little girls, Jean (with Hathaway replaced by New Zealand actor Natalie Medlock) agrees to pack up the family and fly to Tonga.
Much of the territory is familiar to Groberg, and he reconnects with the people he met as a young missionary. (There are a few scenes that stress this reunion, and a viewer who hasn’t seen the original lately may wonder who all these people are.) But Jean and the girls are discovering the place for the first time, as the girls delight in squishing large bugs and Jean figures out how to shop in village markets.
But Groberg’s efforts to teach the Book of Mormon, the faith’s foundational scripture, in the Pacific has its own dangers. Some villages have their own Christian communities, which have little use for what they deem blasphemy. The embodiment of this resistance is the Rev. Sione Pela’tua (Ben Baker), a rigid Methodist minister who banishes his own son, Toutai (Alex Tarrant), when he becomes a convert.
Davis’ script deftly alternates between the parallel narratives, with the Groberg family adjusting to Pacific life on one hand and depicting the Pela’tua family’s struggle — a retelling of the parable of the prodigal son, essentially — on the other. The Grobergs have a crisis in the late portion of the story, which tests the faiths of both their family and the Pela’tuas.
The care and attention that Davis applies to this universal story is so encompassing, so nondenominational, that one need not be a Latter-day Saint to appreciate it. The only exception to this is the inclusion of Thomas S. Monson (Russell Dixon, a dead ringer) here as Groberg’s church boss and later in life as the church’s president and prophet, in scenes that will leave nonmembers scratching their heads a bit.
With Davis’ careful direction, Gorham’s empathetic performance and some beautiful scenery of Fiji (where the movie was shot), “The Other Side of Heaven 2: Fire of Faith” becomes a quietly powerful story of the healing power of community and faith.
‘The Other Side of Heaven 2: Fire of Faith’
The “Mormon cinema” classic gets a sequel, with the onetime Latter-day Saint missionary now a family man taking the role of mission president in Tonga.
Where • Theaters everywhere
When • Opens Friday, June 28
Rated • PG-13 for some thematic elements including violence.
Running time • 118 minutes