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Stolen Summer
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by Erik Childress

"Congratulations, Pete Jones! A Fine Train Ride!"
4 stars

Everyone wants to be a part of the entertainment industry. Actors want to act, writers want to write, jackasses on The Real World and Survivor are, well, jackasses and those who can’t do – teach. Somewhere in-between there are those who report on it. Gossip columnists look into where and who celebrities are eating, shows like Access Hollywood and E! News Daily report on behind-the-scenes news, quote whores look to become celebrities themselves by getting their names in the paper while true film lovers just look at the final product.

Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Chris Moore took it to the next level with their inspired concept, Project Greenlight, to sponsor a contest that would give some struggling young screenwriter the chance to direct their own film. Chicagoan Pete Jones was selected from a starting talent pool of nearly 10,000 entrants, myself included. Anyone who saw the weekly HBO series documenting his plight to make the movie, should once again question the validity of what certain journalists and “reality shows” show you. Because based on what HBO showed us, no one would be able to guess that Pete’s movie, Stolen Summer, would turn out to be so wonderful.

Now that the film is complete and we were invited in to see several aspects of the production, it could be deemed unfair on how to now judge the film. After all, we know what the story is about, how it ends and all the backstage in-fighting that may or may not have affected the work. Then again, we should be used to this by now. Internet gossip sites report on this daily and EW magazine has a feature story on a film weekly. Only this time we got to see it instead of read it. You know a series has burned a place in your memory when you can put a face to the names of every producer listed in the opening credits. Lest we not forget, every finished project always starts with the script.

Pete Jones’ story takes place in Chicago 1976. 8-year old Pete (Adi Stein) is a member of the O’Malley clan, a large and tight Irish-Catholic family headed by their stern fireman father, Joe (Aidan Quinn) and the devoutly religious, but loving mother, Margaret (Bonnie Hunt). Pete would rather play electronic football and board game baseball than be on time for church and he’s worried that the grief he’s getting from the nuns at school will prevent him from getting into Heaven.

So Pete begins a “quest” to secure himself a spot on God’s reservation list by attempting to convert a Jewish person. He bikes over to the nearby synogauge where he meets Rabbi Jacobsen (Kevin Pollak), who graciously agrees to assist him even through the objections of his minimalist congregation. (I think I counted only two people ever being there.) Pete finds a perfect candidate for conversion in the Rabbi’s 7-year old son, Danny (Mike Weinberg), who has been struck with Leukemia. Using the inspirational words of one Bruce Jenner, Pete and Danny form their own Decathlon, which they innocently believe holds the key to the everlasting Kingdom.

Based on that synopsis and on what became the focal point of the HBO series, Stolen Summer appears to be just about these two children and their friendship. It will surprise many though to discover how much Pete Jones managed to pack within the frames. This film is all about relationships; between the two boys; the two fathers; a man and wife; Catholics and Jews; and most importantly, fathers and sons.

What we see in the characters portrayed by Quinn and Pollak are two men from vastly different upbringings and religion brought together through circumstances other than the friendship of their sons. Quinn’s Joe harbors a touch of Anti-Semitism, but also abides by the rules of men and the respect they should have for each other. Both represent different methods to raise their children; Joe by the generational book and the Rabbi by the more relaxed way of letting his child discover things and make decisions for himself – the father as friend instead of ruler. The only thing missing is a little more quality time between the Rabbi and Danny. Although Pollak really sells a poignant moment in his office, a couple more scenes between them could have really sold the emotional wallop I’m sure Pete wanted us all to feel in the end.

From the very beginning, I was always predisposed to comparing Pete’s story with that of Peter Horton’s 1995 directorial feature, The Cure. That film was about two young boys (a few years older than Pete & Danny), one of whom has AIDS, and the journey they have over one summer to discover a remedy. That was a fine film, but one that really drove home the red hot pokers to pierce our tear ducts. Despite a few scenes that some viewers may register on the same meter, Pete’s screenplay manages to find that real natural, even-flowing tone that few movies are able to accomplish. You are invested in the characters and in the moment so your brain doesn’t start working overtime and how everything is going to be resolved. Tom Hanks’ That Thing You Do (1996) unfolded in a similar way.

None of this would be accomplished without the superior work of the ensemble cast. In the documentary, the boys, Stein and Weinberg, may have had Pete secretly thinking why he didn’t listen to W.C. Fields who said never to work with animals or children. As their acting coach pointed out (and I agreed), the boys seemed to be waiting to say their next line instead of listening to what the other was saying. In the movie, they come off like two young boys. Not two young boys trying to act (a la Jake Lloyd in Phantom Menace or Blinky from The Legend of Bagger Vance), just two young boys.

Call it a lucky break, call it creative editing, but I think their performances were aided by both the film’s tone and the actors they were surrounded with. The always commendable Aidan Quinn is great as the working class dad, too proud to accept anything not earned and accomplished, but always believes he’s looking out for the best interest of his family. And Bonnie Hunt is the mom everyone wants. Eddie Kaye Thomas (Finch from American Pie), never seen nor mentioned in the HBO special until the Sundance premiere, is effective in a crucial subplot with Quinn, and Brian Dennehy in just two brief scenes reminds me of the Catholic Priests I grew up with. The standout achievement, however, may be the work of Kevin Pollak. His low-key humor is welcome in just about any film (remember the Jeopardy scene in She’s All That?) but the subtle dramatic chops he displays in some crucial, but non-flashy, scenes makes him worthy of at least a mention when people start writing Oscar articles at years-end.

One of critics’ dirty little secrets is that we’re human beings. We bring our baggage into every cinematic trip we take (whether it be personal or predetermined thoughts about the film) and its our job to, at least for the time being, store it in the overhead compartment once the curtains come up. But when you attend Catholic School for 11 years, the eyes and ears perk up a little when a film turns to discussion of growing up with the religion and having a mother figure that reflects shades of your own.

HBO has given the show’s viewers a new matching set of luggage as well; suitcases that I’m sure Pete hopes that we’ll forget about when seeing his film since the cable network suggested we were boarding an impending trainwreck. Stolen Summer never feels choppy and it never feels false. There is a distinct honesty in the portrayal of blue collar families and the words they speak to one another. If this film failed it could have, as Affleck once said, felt like an After-School Special. But this is Prime Time material with an emphasis on heart that vindicates the Project Greenlight experiment, hopefully giving either talented writers and directors the chance to give audiences something worth watching again and again.

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originally posted: 03/21/02 10:43:56
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User Comments

8/18/05 ES the innocence of children generally makes the rest of us look like a-holes = good watch 4 stars
12/15/04 Walt Robberson Best movie ever. Universal truth of hope + faith. Perfect cast! Especially Bonnie Hunt1 5 stars
1/08/03 tina excellent 4 stars
10/02/02 TheBomb69 I guess I like after school specials 5 stars
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  22-Mar-2002 (PG)



Directed by
  Pete Jones

Written by
  Pete Jones

  Mike Weinberg
  Adi Stein
  Aidan Quinn
  Brian Dennehy
  Bonnie Hunt
  Kevin Pollak

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