Since the salary of a film reviewer doesn't usually allow for luxuries such as HBO, especially in a region that charges almost $50 for basic cable, you're not going to read much herein about Project Greenlight, the Matt Damon/Ben Affleck-produced reality series that selected one script to be filmed on a million-dollar budget and have its making documented over 13 episodes. Suffice it to say that whatever problems Stolen Summer may have encountered during production, it doesn't feel like the disjointed outcome of a troubled shoot. For better or worse plenty of both, in fact it's a movie that has a coherent vision. It's a shame that vision just doesn't happen to be very interesting.
Should that really surprise anyone? Only if you start to confuse Matt Damon with the genius he played in Good Will Hunting or think that Ben Affleck, star of Pearl Harbor and Bounce, could possibly be a good judge of scripts. These guys were guided into their Best Original Screenplay Oscar by Mr. Three-Act Structure himself, William Goldman; the notion that they'd go with anything narratively risky, even on a paltry (for Miramax) budget, is wishful thinking. There's nothing here Disney wouldn't approve of for a TV movie of the week. Heck, it's safe enough for the PAX network. Stolen Summer is yet another entry in the canon of first films about the filmmaker's own childhood, how wonderful and/or traumatic it was, especially the one summer that changed life as he knew it forever (the film even concludes with one of those "I learned something today" speeches so commonly lampooned on South Park). It's not a wholly irredeemable genre Jason Alexander did OK with his 1999 entry, Just Looking but there's a reason The Wonder Years doesn't grace network TV any more.
Initially narrated (badly) by its child star, Adi Stein, Stolen Summer lines up all its ducks in a row at the very beginning, with its tale of young Pete O'Malley (Stein), an Irish Catholic lad growing up in 1976 Chicago. Are you sitting down? Because the next part is really shocking. Pete has get this a strict nun as a schoolteacher! And an alcoholic father (Aidan Quinn) who yells sometimes! Oh, and lots of siblings! You wonder if Ben and Matt ever see movies other than the ones they make.
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Naturally, there has to be a cute contrivance to kick things into gear, and in this case, it's that Pete, fear-struck that the slightest misdeed will send him to hell, decides to redeem himself during the summer break by converting a Jew to Jesus. With the permission of the mildly bemused Rabbi Jacobsen (Kevin Pollak), he sets up a lemonade stand outside the local synagogue offering free trips to heaven. When the rabbi informs him that Jews actually do believe in heaven, but that it involves a little more waiting, Pete naturally assumes that there may be folks who don't want to wait. Jacobsen's happy that the boy is at least thinking about such things, but his wife accuses him of pandering to the Catholics.
After the rabbi's house catches fire, possibly as the result of anti-Semitic arson (a topic the movie hints at only to promptly ignore), killing the synagogue secretary and very nearly taking the life of Jacobsen's young son Danny (Mike Weinberg), Pete decides that Danny will be the perfect target for conversion. Not knowing quite how to convert, however, Pete takes a tip from Olympic hero Bruce Jenner and devises a decathlon-type series of events that will ensure Danny gets to heaven. Danny is, in fact, closer to heaven than is initially apparent he has leukemia. Care to guess how all this will end?
Yet, despite some very predictable melodrama, one or two poorly staged confrontation scenes and a horribly maudlin and intrusive score by Danny Lux a TV composer for the likes of NYPD Blue and Ally McBeal who's making his feature scoring debut there is merit to this project. Much as Monster's Ball's poor direction was partially redeemed by good performances, writer-director Pete Jones' adequate staging and contrived script nonetheless serve as the backdrop to stellar performances by Pollak, often underrated as a mere comedian, and Quinn, usually cast in more one-dimensional versions of the drunk dad role he plays here. As his wife, Bonnie Hunt deserves credit for giving Quinn a strong leading lady to play against. Young leads Stein and Weinberg may have unbearably precocious dialogue and a forced storyline to contend with, but their chemistry is quite effective. You'll hate yourself for misting up at their predicaments when it's so clear that you're being aggressively corralled in that direction, but manipulation or not, chances are you'll feel something.