"Stolen Summer" is the film resulting from Ben Affleck and Matt Damon's heavily publicized "Project Greenlight" screenwriting contest. Sponsored by Miramax, documented through every step of production for an HBO "reality" series, and now being unceremoniously dumped into theaters opposite "Spider-Man," it may become the first movie ever to be less successful than its own "making of" special.
I mention this only because apparently Miramax doesn't believe the movie can stand on its own. Before the feature starts, there's a two-minute introduction about "Project Greenlight" that comes off like a TV commercial, a disclaimer and an apology. "This movie is mediocre, but give this kid a break," the studio seems to be saying. "Just look at all the pressure he was under as a first-time filmmaker. What do you expect?"
Maybe they're right. OK, they are right. But that's no reason to broadcast their lack of faith to you after you've already bought a ticket.
At the heart of "Stolen Summer," written and directed by contest winner Pete Jones, is a curious, earnest story of innocence, family and (ironically) faith. It's about a 7-year-old Irish Catholic boy in 1976 Chicago who has been browbeaten into thinking he's going to hell by the nuns at school. Hoping to prove his Christian worth, he spends his summer on a religious quest. If he can convert one person to Catholicism, he figures he'll be on his way to a Heavenly reward.
So upbeat and clever Pete O'Malley (played by Adi Stein, ironically the son of a Rabbi) sets up a "lemonade and a free trip to Heaven" stand in front of a synagogue hoping to attract interested parties. He's befriended by the temple's amused Rabbi (Kevin Pollack), who likes to stir the pot and believes the boy's presence will inspire healthy thought and debate among his congregation.
When Pete's strict, proudly blue-collar firefighter father (Aidan Quinn) rescues the Rabbi's Leukemia-stricken son Danny (Mike Weinberg) from a fire that burns down their house, the families become friendly and Pete decides that Danny, also 7 years old, should be the person he converts.
Jones is a little obvious in the way he very carefully tippy-toes around the heavier religious issues his story stirs up. Since this is essentially a feel-good family film, he shouldn't be docked too many points for that. But where he does run into trouble is with his young actors. Stein and Weinberg are certainly cute and sincere. Put them in a scene opposite the moving, conflicted, realistic performances of Pollack, Quinn or Bonnie Hunt (who plays Pete's mom) and for the most part they rise to the occasion. But put them in a scene together -- and there are many such scenes -- and they might as well be reading cue cards.
Jones's filmmaking is rudimentary, but his heart is in the right place as "Stolen Summer" touches on themes of pride, ambition, independence, prejudiced, misconception, respect and understanding. The director also provides the picture a vivid sense of time and place, a sense of familial warmth that feels genuinely homey and a sweet sense of humor.
But tackling a low-budget movie in which inexperienced children play the two main characters might not be the best way to cut your teeth in the film industry. All the sincerity and good intentions in the world can't make up for primary performances that waver in their authenticity to the point of distraction.
Run time: 91 mins
In Theaters: Friday 25th July 2003
Box Office USA: $0.1M
Distributed by: Miramax Films
Contactmusic.com: 2.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 36%
Fresh: 21 Rotten: 37
IMDB: 6.5 / 10
Director: Peter Jones
Starring: Aidan Quinn as Joe O'Malley, Bonnie Hunt as Margaret O'Malley, Kevin Pollak as Rabbi Jacobsen, Eddie Kaye Thomas as Patrick O'Malley, Lisa Dodson as Mrs. Jacobsen, Mike Weinberg as Danny Jacobsen, Adiel Stein as Pete O'Malley (as Adi Stein), Brian Dennehy as Father Kelly, Peggy Roeder as Sister Leonora Mary, Martin Hughes as Jimmy
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