Dir Pete Jones. US 2002. 95 mins.

The background story of how Stolen Summer was produced has been documented with step-by-step accuracy, healthy humour and a good deal of cynicism and self-importance in HBO's hit US TV series, Project Greenlight. Unfortunately, this high media profile overshadows and overwhelms the artistic merits of Peter Jones's modest feature directorial debut. Indeed, without the hype and hoopla, Stolen Summer would have been just another modest coming-of-age indie film and celebration of cultural and religious diversity in America. The likelihood is that more people know about Project Greenlight, which was initiated by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon and producer Chris Moore, and have watched the popular series (which will be available on video soon) than will go and see this amateurish Miramax spring release. That said, the film is moderately enjoyable and well-acted by is ensemble cast of both independent and mainstream actors. The film opens on limited release in urban centres on March 22; overseas, without the TV tie-in to drive box office, it is likely to fare less well.

Stolen Summer began as one of thousands of scripts submitted to Project Greenlight, an online screenplay competition that was co-sponsored by Miramax, HBO and LivePlanet. From its very launch, in autumn 2000, the aptly titled projectgreenlight.com garnered an astonishing response, resulting in the creation of an online "virtual" community for aspiring writers. The honourable philosophy behind the project was to democratise and demystify the often fickle, arbitrary, elusive and glamorous process under which films are chosen for production.

"You didn't have to know anybody," producer Moore says in the HBO series, "you didn't have to be anybody's brother. It was completely on the merits of your work." Despite this admirable approach, careful evaluation and screening needed to be made due to the unprecedented response. At first, the pool was reduced to 250 scripts, then to 10 finalists and then to the one chosen. The lucky honoree was Pete Jones, a native of Chicago (where his semi-personal story is set) and graduate of broadcast journalism and theatre arts from the University of Missouri, who relocated to LA. Working for years as a production assistant, he never gave up his dream of becoming a filmmaker.

Two vastly different families are introduced in the first reel. One, working-class and Irish, is headed by an honest but stubborn blue-collar patriarch, Joe (Quinn), who's married to a more sensitive and liberal wife, Margaret (Hunt). Together, they're raising their brood of eight children as best they can within their limited resources. A fireman proud of his service occupation, Joe discourages his eldest son's ambition to go to college, which creates tensions within the family.

Standing in sharp contrast to the O'Malleys are the Jacobsens, a well-to do, educated Jewish family, presided over by the benevolent Rabbi Jacobsen (Pollak, better known as a comedian). The tale is told through the tentative friendship, and then intimate camaraderie, that develops between Joe's precocious son, Pete (Stein), and the rabbi's son, Danny (Weinberg), a sickly but bright kid.

Although only eight, Pete sets out on a quest to change the world, literally, while most third graders spend their summers playing baseball and hanging out around pools. When Pete's Catholic school teacher warns him to clean up his rambunctious act, or else risk the wrath of his maker, the boy decides to embark on a divine mission in his Chicago community and prove his worthiness for entry into Heaven. Danny becomes Pete's unlikely partner in challenging the notions of Heaven and Hell (in the Catholic tradition) and life and afterlife (in the Jewish one).

The duo's encounters, first tense, then gradually more amiable, constitute the essence of the story through the challenges and tests they present to each other. The weaker rabbi's son need to pass some physical tests, whereas the physically stronger Pete needs to learns some moral issues, specifically the true meaning of hope, commitment and friendship.

Written and directed by Jones, Stolen Summer is an old-fashioned family melodrama and message movie about the importance of tolerance, particularly in a society as big, diverse and polarised as America. Deeply immersed in the basic values of the American Dream, the script stresses respect for racial and religious co-existence, while also cherishing upward mobility and the need of the younger generation to learn and take the best from their elders, and at the same time improve on their lot culturally and economically. Although the feature is about the particular customs associated with two specific religions, the story goes out of its way to demonstrate the existence of universal values, such as faith, trust and friendship.

The film's predominant tone is sweet and innocent, but not insubstantial. Occasionally, some more serious philosophical questions, such as what's definite, what's beyond life and what are the most important values to believe in are posed and fortunately remain unanswered. In this respect, Stolen Summer provides a proper educational film that deserves to be shown in various institutions, particularly now that American society has become polarised in terms of class, race, and sexual orientation. Every once in a while the fine line between a moving and emotional melodrama and one that's utterly sentimental and syrupy is crossed; while it may be ignored by young viewers, it will irritate more mature patrons.

Pollak and Quinn, who have teamed up before in Barry Levinson's coming-of-age story Avalon, render decent and likeable performances. Hunt, an edgier, tougher actress, excels as the loving, level-headed, possibly brighter wife, a full-time mum whose relationship with Joe gets tenuous and even volatile. But, ultimately, Stolen Summer belongs to Adi Stein (a rabbi' son in real life) who gives an absolutely captivating and charismatic performance.

Despite a sizeable budget (by the standard of indie debuts) of over $1 million, artistically speaking, Stolen Summer is an extremely modest film, with technical values that are raw and occasionally even amateurish and inept.

Pro co: A Miramax Films presentation of a LivePlanet production
US dist:
Miramax Films
Int'l sales Miramax Int'l
Exec prods: Michelle Sy, Pat Peach
Prods: Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, and Chris Moore
Pete Jones
Cinematography: Pete Biagi
Prod des:
Devorah Herbert
Gregg Featherman
Music: Danny Lux
Main cast:
Aidan Quinn, Bonnie Hunt, Kevin Pollak, Brian Dennehy, Eddie Kaye Thomas, Mike Weinberg, Adiel Stein