Stolen Summer

The background story and specific conditions under which Stolen Summer was produced, documented with step-by-step accuracy, healthy humor, and a good deal of cynicism and self-importance in HBO's hit series, “Project Greenlight,” far overshadow and overwhelm the artistic merits of Pete Jones's modest feature directorial debut. Indeed, without the hype and hoopla, Stolen Summer would have been just another modest indie about coming-of- age and the celebration of cultural and religious diversity in America. Chances are that more people know about Project Greenlight, which was initiated by young stars Ben Affleck and Matt Damon and producer Chris Moore, and more people have seen the popular HBO series (which will be available on video soon) than the number of moviegoers likely to see this amateurish Miramax spring release. That said, the film is moderately enjoyable and well-acted by is ensemble cast of both indie and mainstream actors, such as Aidan Quinn, Bonnie Hunt, Kevin Pollak, and Brian Dennehy.

Stolen Summer began as one of thousands of scripts submitted to Project Greenlight, an online screenplay competition, co-sponsored by Miramax, HBO, and LivePlanet. From its very launch, in fall 2000, the aptly titled garnered an astonishing response, resulting in the creation of an online “virtual” community for aspiring writers. The honorable philosophy behind the project was to democratize and demystify the often fickle, arbitrary, elusive, and glamorous process under which movies are chosen for production.

“You didn't have to know anybody,” producer Moore says in the HBO series, “you didn't have to be anybody's brother. It was completely on the merits of your work.” Despite this admirable approach, careful evaluation and screening needed to be made due to the large volume of unprecedented response. At first, the pool was reduced to 250 scripts, then to 10 finalists, and then to the one chosen.

The lucky honoree was Pete Jones, a native of Chicago (where his semi-personal yarn is set) and graduate of broadcast journalism and theater arts from University of Missouri, who relocated to L.A.. working for years as a production assistant, all along never giving up his dream of becoming a filmmaker.

Two vastly different families are introduced in the first reel. One, working-class Irish, headed by an honest but stubborn blue-collar patriarch, Joe (Quinn), who's married to a more sensitive and liberal wife, Margaret (Hunt). Together, they're raising their brood of eight children as best they could within their limited resources. A fireman proud of his service occupation, Joe doesn't encourage his eldest son's ambition to go to college, which creates tensions within the family.

Standing in sharp contrast to the O'Malleys are the Jacobsens, a well-to do, educated Jewish family, presided over by the benevolent Rabbi Jacobsen (Pollak, better known as a comedian). The tale is told through the tentative friendship, and then intimate camaraderie, that develops between Joe's precocious son, Pete (Stein), and the rabbi's son, Danny (Weinberg), a sickly but bright kid.

Though only 8, Pete sets out on a quest to change the world, literally, while most third graders spend their summers playing baseball and hanging out around pools. When Pete's Catholic school teacher warns him to clean up his rambunctious act, or else risk the wrath of his maker, the boy decides to embark on a divine mission in his Chicago community and prove his worthiness for entry into Heaven. Danny becomes Pete's unlikely partner in challenging the notions of Heaven and Hell (in the Catholic tradition) and life and afterlife (in the Jewish one).

The duo's encounters, first tense, then gradually more amiable, constitute the essence of the story through the challenges and tests they present to each other: The weaker rabbi's son need to pass some physical tests, whereas the physically stronger Pete needs to learns some moral issues, specifically the true meaning of hope, commitment, and friendship.

As written and directed by Jones, Stolen Summer is an old-fashioned family melodrama and a message movie about the importance of tolerance, particularly in a society as big, diverse, and polarized as America. Deeply immersed in the basic values of the American Dream, the script stresses respect for racial and religious co-existence, while also cherishing upward mobility and the need of the younger generation to learn and take the best from their elders, and at the same time improve on their lot culturally and economically. Though the movie is about the particular customs associated with two specific religions, the tale goes out of its way to demonstrate the existence of universal values, such as faith, trust, and friendship.

The movie's predominant tone is sweet and innocent, but not insubstantial. Occasionally, some more serious philosophical questions, such as what's definite, what's beyond life, what are the most important values to believe in, are posed and fortunately remain unanswered. In this respect, Stolen Summer provides a proper educational movie to be shown in various institutions, particularly at present, when American society has becomes polarized in terms of class, race, and sexual orientation, with an escalating rate of hate crimes. Every once in a while the fine line between a moving and emotional melodrama and one that's utterly sentimental and syrupy is crossed, which may be ignored by young viewers but will irritate more mature patrons.

Pollak and Quinn, who had teamed together before, in Barry Levinson's 1990 Avalon, also a coming-of-age story of a Jewish boy in Baltimore, render decent and likable performances. An edgier, tougher actress, Hunt excels as the loving, level-headed, possibly brighter wife, a full-time mom whose relationship with Joe gets tenuous and even volatile. But, ultimately, Stolen Summer belongs to Adi Stein (a rabbi' son in real life) who gives an absolutely captivating and charismatic performance.

Despite a sizable budget (by standards of indie debuts) of over $1 million, artistically speaking, Stolen Summer is an extremely modest film, with technical values that are raw and occasionally even amateurish and inept.