“THE OTHER SIDE OF HEAVEN 2: FIRE OF FAITH” — 3 stars — Christopher Gorham, Natalie Medlock, Russell Dixon, Joe Folau, Miriama Smith; PG-13 (thematic material including violence); in general release; running time: 110 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — Mitch Davis’ “The Other Side of Heaven 2: Fire of Faith” captures a powerful message about fatherhood and faith, with memorable religious parallels. It’s also a thoughtful reminder that it's been almost 20 years since Richard Dutcher’s “God’s Army” kicked off an era of films centered around The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Based on Elder John H. Groberg’s autobiographical novel of the same name, Davis’ “Fire of Faith” tells the story of the author's — who served in the First Quorum of the Seventy from 1976 until he was granted emeritus status in 2005 — return to the mission field years after spending three years in Polynesia as a young man.
The film opens in Idaho Falls, Idaho, as John (Christopher Gorham) has more or less settled into a traditional domestic life, building a family with his wife Jean (Natalie Medlock) and four young daughters amid the excitement of the mid-1960s. Life comes knocking, though, with a call to return to Tonga with his family as president of the Tonga-Fiji Mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The prospects of taking his young family to a place as remote as Tonga gives John pause, but with some encouragement from then-Elder Thomas S. Monson (Russell Dixon), he and Jean resolve to act in faith and serve the people of Polynesia.
Right away, it’s clear that while the peril of the tropics is the same as his first experience in the islands, the job is much more administrative than what John experienced as a young elder. Things also get more complicated as he and Jean continue to have children during the assignment, and the joy that comes from the birth of John’s first son is matched by the pain of the young boy’s unexpected illness.
But John isn’t the only father having troubles in the islands. A Methodist preacher named Sione (Ben Baker) is growing uneasy with the increasing Latter-day Saint influence in his humble village, and things get personal as his family becomes involved with the church.
The conflict between John and Sione sets up “Fire of Faith’s” surface narrative, but eventually Davis’ film becomes a compelling symmetrical study of two fathers wrestling with tragedies beyond their control.
While the theme of fatherhood and faith will ring universal to many audiences, Davis’ story is still very Latter-day Saint-specific, and viewers outside the faith may struggle to connect to its many inside references. But Gorham — reprising the role he played in the first film — is a likable and relatable protagonist, and manages to carry the film, supported by a moving turn by Baker.
The cumulative effect elevates “Fire of Faith” beyond what initially feels like a simple series of adventures in the islands, and leaves audiences with a much more thoughtful examination of its subject.
Davis’ first film — released in 2001 — was notably one of the better entries in a series of movies produced in the wake of 2000’s “God’s Army,” and here again, once it gets up to speed, “The Other Side of Heaven 2: Fire of Faith” hits a meaningful and memorable stride.
Rating explained: “The Other Side of Heaven 2: Fire of Faith” is rated PG-13 for adult themes, some violence and scenes of dramatic peril.