Stolen Summer (The Project Greenlight Movie) (2002)

28 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: **

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Stolen Summer” was filmed out of competition for the “Project Greenlight” contest, sponsored by Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, and Chris Moore (under their production name Liveplanet). Aspiring writer-director Pete Jones’s screenplay “Stolen Summer” was chosen to be made into a film for Miramax, under the condition that Jones allow pre-production, production, and post-production to be filmed by a documentary crew for the HBO TV series that went behind-the-scenes of the project. The series, “Project Greenlight,” showed Jones as was able to direct his film with help from more experienced crew members, as they got together to make it with the small budget they were given. Throughout the series, we were with the people as they talked through their problems of filmmaking and we were able to understand what they were going through because the complications were just part of a first-time project. “Stolen Summer” was given a limited theatrical release (of course, with the tagline “The Project Greenlight Movie”), and anyone could tell you it’s not as compelling as the TV series that showed it being made. But how is it as a movie itself? How do I put this delicately? It’s not very good.

There’s a reason people like to mention the term “afterschool special” with a mocking sense. ABC Afterschool Specials may have tackled subjects that should have been faced in order to deliver lessons for kids, but they were also clumsily-handled, broadly-written, overly-dramatic, and as a result, easy to make fun of. What makes it more distracting is the notion that buried not too deeply beneath the surface of these TV movies, there were elements of moving stories to be told. But as they were told, for the most part anyway, they were relentlessly manipulative and not subtle in the slightest.

Unfortunately, the same can be said about Pete Jones’ “Stolen Summer.” I’m not denying that Jones has talent as a filmmaker, but this does somewhat reek of “first-project” status. And this film does have that “afterschool special” feel—it’s trying to be a heartwarming tearjerker while also trying to teach something, but it’s all too generic and so wholesome in spirit and tone. As a result, it’s somewhat flat.

The plot: Set in Chicago in the mid-1970s, second-grader Pete O’Malley (Adi Stein) is out of Catholic school for the summer just after a nun tells him to walk along a path towards Jesus and away from the Devil. Pete takes this warning a bit too seriously, as he sets out on a “quest” to make sure he gets into Heaven. He makes a goal to help someone else get to Heaven as well, and so he decides to convert a Jew to Catholicism, as he believes that Catholicism is the true path to Jesus and Heaven. He meets the rabbi of the local synagogue, Rabbi Jacobson (Kevin Pollak), and also makes friends with his son, Danny (Mike Weinberg), who is dying of leukemia. Pete is convinced that Danny is the perfect subject for conversion, so he decides to help him get to Heaven by proving his worthiness to God.

Is this really what a Catholic-school second-grader would think about when faced with the subjects of religion? Actually, it might be. Pete is just a kid; he reacts to these two religions—Judaism and Catholicism—as a test he wants to take, and he learns more about both of them as the film continues. He’s just a kid; he doesn’t know how it all works, or much of how life works for instance, but he’s impressionable.

Now, this part is more of a personal feeling—Pete’s talks with his Irish-Catholic father (Aidan Quinn), the Rabbi, and the Catholic priest (Brian Dennehy) can be either be seen as very charming or just too cute to the point of annoyance. I’m afraid I fall into the latter category, although I did find a few one-liners regarding certain elements of the religions to be amusing. For example, when Pete wonders if the priest gets paid to do what he does, and curiously asks if he takes from the collection—his response: “No. *chuckles* Why, did anybody tell you that?” Other than that, I felt that some of these scenes lacked a little tact, and while they’re not entirely offensive, they’re still not entirely in good taste.

The talks that Pete’s parents share with each other about Pete’s crusade, and also the talks that the Rabbi shares with his wife about the same subject, are the most interesting part of the movie, and even more so when both fathers confront each other about what this is doing for them (people question Pete’s lemonade stand in front of the synagogue; Pete’s father believes Pete is too young to be thinking about this sort of thing, etc.). Even though these scenes are somewhat broadly-written, they are admittedly assisted by capable actors to go through them. Aidan Quinn is quite good as Pete’s fireman dad, Joe, who was raised to work hard and take no nonsense. This character could have been portrayed as a stereotypically cynical Irishman, but Quinn’s performance is credible enough to make the character more of a human being. Kevin Pollak delivers solid work as the friendly Rabbi Jacobson who lets Pete continue with this “quest” because it still gives his own son Danny a possible last chance to act like a normal kid. At the same time, he’s worrying about how much time Danny has left, and even breaks down and cries (and prays) in one certain scene. Pollak has a lot to do with this role—he’s able to pull it off. Also good is Bonnie Hunt as Margaret, the mother of the O’Malley children (there are about eight, including Pete of course, if I didn’t lose count), who plays the role with a sardonic wit. Hunt has arguably the most truthful bits, especially in the beginning when she gets the family ready for church, and when one of her unruly sons mouths off, she points him forward assuring him that she isn’t going to hit him, and then smacks him in the head. Also quite strong is “American Pie” alum Eddie Kaye Thomas as Patrick, the oldest O’Malley son who tries to find a manageable way to work despite his father’s decisions to keep him away from college (he believes Patrick will wind up sleeping late and smoking pot, like most college students he heard about).

Actually, I realize that the reason that “Stolen Summer” doesn’t work so well is because of the central story of the kids and how almost everything has to be played around it. I would rather see a story more based around the people I mentioned in the previous paragraph—Joe, Margaret, Rabbi Jacobson, Patrick (and also the priest, well-played by Brian Dennehy). Played by these game actors, they’re able to step out of the material they’re given and manage to make their characters their own. And they do have a genuinely effective scene every once in a while. But the big problem I have with the story of the two kids, I’m real sorry to say, are the young actors playing them—Adi Stein and Mike Weinberg. I hate to criticize child actors, but these two just aren’t very good here, and because a lot rides on these two to pull off as much generic material as their older, more experienced co-stars are able to, much of “Stolen Summer” sinks when it should have floated.

“Stolen Summer” right from the opening lighthearted piano score to the generically hopeful final shot just has that feel of an afterschool special. The actors are fine (for the most part, as I’ve said) and a couple of scenes work, but it’s too manipulative and tries way too hard to get its audience teary-eyed after watching it.

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