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Stolen Summer (January 23/03)

The problem with Stolen Summer is, after watching the Project Greenlight series that spawned it, it's impossible not to be a little let down with the actual product. The show was a fascinating look at what goes into making a feature-length motion picture, and was no way indicative of the sweet little drama writer/director Pete Jones was trying to make. It's only natural, then, that the final product seems somewhat less exciting and fresh; there's no way the film could've replicated the extreme drama of the series. Still, Stolen Summer is an affable slice-of-life tale.

The film revolves around the O'Malley clan, a large Irish-American family consisting of father Joe (Aidan Quinn), mom Margaret (Bonnie Hunt), and eight kids - including Patrick (Eddie Kaye Thomas) and Pete (Adiel Stein). During one particularly eventful summer, Pete strikes up a friendship with a younger boy named Danny (Mike Weinberg). After he learns Danny is suffering from leukemia, Pete becomes convinced that Danny (a Jew) won't be able to get to heaven without his help. The two concoct a series of tests designed to prove Danny's worthiness to God, much to the chagrin of their respective parents.

Stolen Summer isn't the kind of film that gets made too often nowadays; it's a gentle and well-meaning story told with a laid-back pace. Jones' script contains a good amount of surprises, and he takes the time to explore these characters - allowing us to genuinely care about what happens to them. His directorial style is of the point-and-shoot variety, which isn't necessarily a bad thing as over-the-top visual flourishes likely would've taken our attention away from the ample dialogue.

The presence of some amazing actors (like Quinn and Pollak) certainly doesn't hurt, either. As Joe O'Malley, Quinn takes what could've been a stereotypically angry Irishman and turns the character into someone with a lot more going on beneath the surface. Through his performance, we see flashes of what this guy must've been like as a younger man and why he stubbornly believes the things he does. Kevin Pollak likely gives the performance of his career as Rabbi Jacobson, Danny's father. This is a role that requires Pollak to run the gamut of emotions (there's a scene where he breaks down and cries, even), and though Pollak is known mostly for being the wise-cracking sidekick, he's completely believable here.

The problem with the film, then, appears in the form of the two young actors playing Pete and Danny. There's no point in sugarcoating it; they're terrible. Not once during the course of the film did they ever seem to inhabit these characters - plainly put, the two look as though they're trying their darndest to act throughout. Imagine the worst child actor you've ever seen, and you might have some vague conception at how absolutely horrible these two really are. And since the two characters have a lot of time alone together, the film comes to a dead halt whenever the focus is just on them. The adult figures are so compelling that it's impossible not to wish the film would've just zeroed in on their various storylines.

Still, as bad as those two are, the movie still remains watchable due mostly to the adult performances and Jones' likable screenplay. For his next project, let's hope that Jones sticks to the grown-ups.

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