Stolen Summer

on March 22, 2002 by Annlee Ellingson
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   “Stolen Summer” has the disadvantage of having its entire production--the budget negotiations, the crew confrontations, the scenes that didn't make the final cut--broadcast for all the world to see. As the winner of a screenwriting contest sponsored by Project Greenlight, initiated by Ben Affleck, Matt Damon and producer Chris Moore, director/scribe Pete Jones' first time behind the camera has been documented in an HBO documentary series that reveals, sometimes, the inexperience of the crew and exposes what could have been.

   What “Stolen Summer” is a melodrama set in mid-'70s Chicago about eight-year-old Pete O'Malley (Adi Stein), a Catholic boy who, warned by a nun that he is on a path to hell, decides that he is going to ensure his acceptance into heaven by converting a Jew. Through the course of his research, he befriends Danny (Mike Weinberg), the son of the local rabbi, who has been diagnosed with leukemia. The pair comes up with a series of tests--a decathlon culminating with a dangerous swim in Lake Michigan--that will guarantee Danny gets to heaven. Pete and Danny's friendship brings together their families as well, as their fathers--Joe O'Malley (Aidan Quinn), a proud working-class stiff with suspicious, bordering-on-anti-Semitic beliefs, and Rabbi Jacobsen (Kevin Pollak), a forward-thinking religious leader who allows his son's “quest” to continue despite his wife's objections--gain understanding about their respective beliefs.

   The biggest obstacle here is that the film rests on the tiny shoulders of two child actors. Stein's and Weinberg's performances are stiff, their lines delivered as though in a grade school Christmas pageant. Their shortcomings become even more apparent when paired with as accomplished a talent as Quinn, whose intensity onscreen is unmatched and thus jarring.

   Amateur, too, are aspects of the production. Pivotal moments, such as Danny's completion of the decathlon, are missing. (Avid viewers of the TV show know why.) Post-production dialogue looping is obvious. (Ditto.) And some shot choices are questionable. (When Pete's older brother reads a college rejection letter, he is shot from across the room, with his younger sibling playing in the foreground, diminishing the impact of the scene.)

   Yet “Stolen Summer” played relatively well to Sundance audiences, who seemed to welcome such rare feel-good fare. What they responded to was what got the film made in the first place: the contest-winning script, even if it was awkwardly realized. Jones has tackled a meaty subject and drawn engaging characters while peppering the pages with memorable zingers. (In an effort to force Joe to accept a generous gift from Rabbi Jacobsen, his wife Margaret, played by Bonnie Hunt, threatens, “So help me God, Joe, the only thing colder than your food when you get home will be your bed.”)

   Miramax has tentatively slated “Stolen Summer” for a limited release in New York and Los Angeles. That would be a mistake. The film's flaws will be less obvious to those unfamiliar with the television series and with showbiz in general, and its best chance at finding an audience is to play in Middle America, where its earnestness and cutesy humor will be met with less cynicism.    Starring Aidan Quinn, Bonnie Hunt, Kevin Pollak, Eddie Kaye Thomas, Mike Weinberg, Adi Stein and Brian Dennehy. Directed and written by Pete Jones. Produced by Ben Affleck, Matt Damon and Chris Moore. A Miramax release. Drama. Rated PG for thematic elements and language. Running time: 91 min.

Tags: Starring Aidan Quinn, Bonnie Hunt, Kevin Pollak, Eddie Kaye Thomas, Mike Weinberg, Adi Stein and Brian Dennehy. Directed and written by Pete Jones, Produced by Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Chris Moore, Miramax, Drama
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