Good try, but too weak in too many ways

For those not in the know, Stolen Summer is the result of the first Project Greenlight contest - run by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon through their LivePlanet company, along with Miramax, and a documentary series that ran on HBO. More than ten thousand scripts were entered, and the winning writer got to direct his own film on a million dollar budget.

I had read the script long before seeing the film. And I will say it reads very well, and I can understand how it won the contest alongside some other well deserving scripts. The winner Pete Jones had written a thoughtful tale, which surely echos his own experience as an Irish Catholic youth in 1970s Chicago.

Pete O'Malley is our winsome youth, one of a very large brood. As school lets out before summer, the morality lessons doled out by the grownups around him get spun around in his head in the way children do, and Pete takes on a quest, one very meaningful to him personally - to get a Jewish person to heaven. While Judaism and Catholicism are very much different, the script chooses instead to center on the differences between people, and how they see themselves in relation to each other.

He parks a lemonade stand in front of the local synagogue, with the permission of Rabbi Jacobsen (Kevin Pollock), offering free lemonade and "the facts" to get to Heaven. He doesn't get any interest, and Jacobsen hears about it from his congregation that there's something wrong about the setup. The Rabbi likes the fact things are stirred up - he wants people to think.

Then the Rabbi's house burns down. Pete's father (Aidan Quinn) is a fireman, and rescues the Rabbi's son, Danny. The Rabbi is thankful, and the families start interacting in interesting ways. Pete's father does what he can to end this Heaven business, thinking it's not right. He also refuses a scholarship offered to his eldest son by the Rabbi's congregation, feeling like it's charity. To hear him talk, it would seem the only thing he's in favor of is more children. His wife (Bonnie Hunt) is a moderating voice, but can't quite compete with his temper.

Through this, Pete becomes friends with Danny. Since Danny has lukemia, he seems the perfect prospect for Pete to bring to heaven. Danny's all for it. They put together a strangely naive set of rituals for this, based upon the decathlon, won so recently by Bruce Jenner.

The ending is not the tightly sewn up sort, but aims to be so in an emotional sense. I like some of the choices, but it ends up playing a bit underwhelmingly onscreen. Perhaps a bigger budget with some additional minutes of screen time could have accomplished it.

The acting from the adults is well done - these are fine independent actors who know what they are doing - but I felt like the children only gave us about two shades of emotion - excitement and uncertainty, and at times it was hard to tell those two apart. It's a relief to go back to the adults, who may occasionally be one-dimensional, but at least interesting to watch.

It's clear that Jones had some expert help to shore up his experience. Shots are mostly well let and from good angles. Yet there are good ideas here that just somehow do not get executed right. The trendy shake-the-camera shots are too relied upon, call attention to themselves, and would have been better left behind in the planning stages.

I keep wondering how this summer was "stolen" - perhaps it's the thought that kids should be concerned about playing at that age. But to me, Pete has learned some lessons about life, his family, and fighting for something he believes in. From the point of view of the movie, this has been anything but a waste of time.

Really, the biggest miscalculation here isn't the directing, or even the children. It's the fact that we center on little Pete O'Malley when, in fact, he is only the catalyst. The interesting stuff is happening with the adults. Every time we got back to Pete and Danny, we lose energy from the real story. It might different if this were about a loss of innocence, but Pete never really changes. The child-focused view leaves us essentially with a more challenging after-school special than a film for us all to enjoy.

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