Ultimate Gift, The

Reviewed by Tim Grierson

Based on author Jim Stovalls commercially successful Christian novel, director Michael O. Sajbels The Ultimate Gift preaches a familiar message of valuing people over material possessions, but the pat moralizing and increasingly contrived plotting result in a movie that can be as tedious and longwinded as a Sunday-school lecture.

Jason Stevens (Drew Fuller), a spoiled, self-centered young man, doesn't care about the recent death of his wealthy grandfather Red (James Garner). The two men were never close, and so Jason doesnt expect to receive much in Reds will. It's therefore a shock to discover that Red actually has made a video specifically for him to watch. In this video message, Red tells Jason that if he will simply complete a series of tasks (or gifts), he will receive an impressive inheritance. But what that inheritance is remains a mystery.

Hoping for untold millions, Jason begins completing the tasks, but quickly learns that each undertaking is designed as a life lesson meant to teach him how to become a better person. Though frustrated at the rising difficulty of the tasks, along the way he meets struggling single mom Alexia (Ali Hillis) and her ill daughter Emily (Abigail Breslin, recent Oscar nominee for “Little Miss Sunshine”). Attracted to Alexia, Jason starts spending time with Emily, and the three form a close bond, though it's jeopardized by Jasons overwhelming desire to finish his tasks and get his money.

A self-consciously conservative drama that advocates Christian values and righteous living, The Ultimate Gift plays out pretty predictability, with its message of changing wicked ways and its tear-jerking sentiments easily telegraphed early on.

As a filmmaker, Sajbel favors a competent style, too often relying on cloying sweetness and cornball humor to move the scenes forward. The Ultimate Gift doesnt seem so much an entertainment as it does a motivational film for young and impressionable viewers, encouraging them to find God as a personal guide.

While the films earnestness is off-putting, the performances manage to be heartfelt without tripping into mawkishness. The Ultimate Gift finds its firmest footing when concentrating on the makeshift family created by Jason, Alexia and Emily. Although Drew Fuller fails to make Jason compelling initially, when he is at his most self-absorbed, his acting improves as he starts to learn to care about others. Clearly, Fuller feels more comfortable playing the romantic lead than the shallow anti-hero.

Ali Hillis keeps Alexia from being a stereotypically perfect mother who, despite financial difficulties, loves her daughter and tries to give her a good life. Instead, her Alexia is smart and sarcastic, although deeply adorable as well.

As Emily, Abigail Breslin also turns a one-note character into something more. Jason learns that Emily is dying of leukemia, and The Ultimate Gift is at its most manipulative, when it positions her as a helpless angel preparing for death. But even here, Breslin succeeds in making Emily more than just a mawkish prop, articulating the little girls fear and innocence in the face of the inevitable tragedy.

Despite the warm central performances, The Ultimate Gift spends most of its energy teaching an obvious lesson about selflessness, which often forces its characters to behave in unbelievable ways in the name of plot contrivances. Although Jason and Alexia begin a tentative relationship, he still feels compelled to continue completing the tasks, which includes going to a remote, dangerous part of South America. Considering that hes falling for Alexia and doesnt even know for sure that hell be inheriting millions of dollars, the decision to leave and risk his life is extremely questionable.

Once in South America, the script (written by Cheryl McKay from Stovalls novel) changes tone recklessly, becoming a Deer Hunter-style battle for survival between Jason and some desperate, murderous rebels. Rather than offering thrills and scares, Jason's life-and-death struggle plays out laughably, and Sajbels lightweight direction lacks the grittiness needed for such a harrowing sequence.

That lack of grittiness affects other parts of the film as well, greatly lessening the impact of its moral by clouding the proceedings in a fairy-tale haze. One of the gifts Red gives Jason is an appreciation for money by wiping out all the young mans assets. Jason must then find true friends who will like him even if hes poor, though The Ultimate Gift never creates a believable facsimile of poverty. Essentially, the penniless Jason simply sleeps on a park bench because he has nowhere to stay–there is no sense of the panic, humiliation and hunger that accompany poverty; it's as if the filmmakers didnt want to make their uplifting story too bleak and risk scaring off any potential audience members.

Moreover, Emilys losing battle with leukemia receives an airbrushed approach, heightening the noble tragedy of a young girls death without forcing the audience (or the characters) to confront the painful emotional and physical agonies she goes through. By shying away from the messy truths of dying and poverty, the film feels sheltered from the harsh realities of the real world as Jason does.

The Ultimate Gift knows what moral it wants to impart, but it doesn't know how to tell it convincingly.


Running time: 118 minutes

Director: Michael O. Sajbel
Production company: Dean River Productions
US distribution: Fox Faith Films
Producers: Rick Eldridge, John Shepherd, Dave Ross, Paul Brooks, Jim Van Eerden
Screenplay: Cheryl McKay (based on Jim Stovalls book)
Cinematography: Brian Baugh
Editor: Scott Chestnut
Production Design: Stephen Storer
Music: Mark McKenzie, Anthony Short


Jason Stevens (Drew Fuller)
Red Stevens (James Garner)
Alexia (Ali Hillis)
Emily (Abigail Breslin)
Miss Hastings (Lee Meriwether)
Gus (Brian Dennehy)
Ted Hamilton (Bill Cobbs)