The Other Side of Heaven and Stolen Summer (review)

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Being Ned Flanders

Ever been awakened on a Sunday morning by the doorbell, and you stumble to answer it and you’re hung over and exhausted and you look like hell, and it’s bright shiny Mormons, and you just wanna smack ’em? Now imagine if they moved into your house and wouldn’t leave you alone, ever. That’s what The Other Side of Heaven is about, only it’s from the Mormons’ point of view, and they think you’re perfectly happy to listen to them prattle on.

This is based on a true story, but so was Patch Adams. In the 1950s, Idaho’s shiny happy John Groberg (Christopher Gorham: A Life Less Ordinary) is sent on a mission to Tonga. The Mormons call him “Elder,” which isn’t supposed to be funny but is, cuz Groberg is about 12 years old — okay, he’s 19, but still. The people of Tonga, who have never seen a white person before and speak not a word of English, welcome him and his conversionary fervor with open arms. Carrying on the tradition of the scariest nice people in the world, Groberg brings the “truth” to a people so trusting or pleasant or polite that they actually believe that because Groberg traveled so far to teach them, what he says must be true.
If anyone has a problem with Arrogant White Boy coming to their island and telling them everything they believe is wrong, then it is not represented here, in screenwriter/director Mitch Davis’s cloying and sanctimonious movie. There is the rival Christian preacher, a native Tongan, who tries to turn the island against Groberg on the assumption, perhaps, that his version of the Bible arrived first and so these souls belong on his tally board. But even the preacher is eventually won over by Groberg’s crisp white shirt and shiny happiness.

Much of what is meant to be “inspirational” and “uplifting” is simply distasteful to audiences not already sharing Groberg’s mindset. Davis implies that the result of refusing God and baptism is, no kidding, to be taken into prostitution by Australian sailors, as if these were the only choices open to the native girls. Groberg treats Tongan rituals and beliefs with disdain, yet he wants these people to be open to new ideas, his ideas… and they are. His customs and practices and culture are treated with more reverence and more importance and a far greater sense of morality than the Tongans are, and the Tongans here are just fine with that. I may be the only person to watch this movie who finds it disgusting that Groberg came to teach these people to sing “Amazing Grace,” to teach them that they were lost wretches before he arrived.

It makes me furious. White people have a lot to answer for.

Project Greenlight winner Pete Jones takes on missionary zeal in his debut feature Stolen Summer, and while it’s not shiny-happy revolting like The Other Side of Heaven, it’s heavy-handed and full of its own importance. And it’s more than a little disturbing to see the subject matter — the religious confusion of two young boys — handled with neither enough sobriety nor enough humor. In an effort, I suspect, not to offend by appearing either too serious or too lighthearted, it offends by just being wishy-washy.

Pete O’Malley (Adi Stein) is 8 years old in a late 70s summer in Chicago — this must be semiautobiographical on Jones’s part — and on a quest to please the nuns at his elementary school. He decides, with all the earnestness a studious 8-year-old can muster, that he will be like Saint Somebody and convert a Jew, and that this will show the sisters that he’s a good Catholic. His target is Danny Jacobsen (Mike Weinberg: Life as a House), a year younger and — heavy-hand alert! — dying of cancer. Danny is completely horrified at the idea that he will not go to heaven because he doesn’t believe in Jesus, so he is up for conversion.

Dad O’Malley (Aidan Quinn: Practical Magic) rants and raves and drinks a lot of beer. Mom O’Malley (Bonnie Hunt: The Green Mile, who looks as put-upon on her character does) shakes her head and sighs a lot and mostly defers to Dad. Dad Jacobsen (Kevin Pollak: 3000 Miles to Graceland, in a surprisingly poignant performance) happens to be a rabbi, and he tolerates Pete to a point. Dad O’Malley is a bigot, of course, and Rabbi Jacobsen is patient to a fault, of course, and Father Kelly (Brian Dennehy: Romeo + Juliet) always looks like he just had a nip of the communion wine.

It all looks clipped together from home movies, with that same feeling of Mom waving giddily at the camera and Dad grumbling to get that camera out of his face and the kids splashing at the beach, which is, in fact, what Pete and Danny get up to for a painfully long stretch of this short film. Stolen Summer, alas, is as embarrassingly earnest as 8-year-old Pete himself, and what it needs is to get outside and play for a while.

The Other Side of Heaven
viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics
rated PG for thematic elements and brief disturbing images
official site | IMDB

Stolen Summer
viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics
rated PG for thematic elements
official site | IMDB

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