“Stolen Summer” has already attracted attention through the HBO series “Project Greenlight,” which documents the making of the film. Viewing the TV show, one gets the impression the film will turn out awful. It’s like watching the planning sessions for New Coke.
It is with great pleasure, then, that I announce “Stolen Summer” is a lovely movie, a whimsical, heartfelt ode to family and God. I realize most things that are heartfelt odes to family and God tend to be sanctimonious — long on good intentions and short on quality storytelling. But while the entire film is about religion, the actual faith-affirming fuzziness sneaks up on you, thus coming off as endearing, not preachy. This is a movie whose good intentions pay off.
The story is of the Irish-Catholic O’Malley family of 1976 Chicago. Specifically, 8-year-old Peter, told by his Catholic-school teacher he’s on the highway to hell, decides to spend the summer on a quest to do something good. Someone reminds him of the missionary duties of St. Paul — converting Jews and Romans — and he elects to do the same.
He locates the local synagogue, run by the avuncular Rabbi Jacobsen (Kevin Pollak), and says he wants to help Jews get to heaven by “converting” them, though he has little idea what that actually entails. Jacobsen doesn’t take any particular offense at the notion that Jews will go to hell without the Catholics’ help; in fact, he welcomes the open dialogue and friendliness between the faiths. He and Peter become friends.
Later, Peter finds his project: Jacobsen’s son, Danny (Mike Weinberg). He’s a year younger than Peter, and he has leukemia, currently in remission. He wants to go to heaven and doesn’t understand the contradictory dogmas any better than Peter does. We mentioned good intentions earlier. The two boys have them.
Pete Jones shows more skill as a writer than as a director. He manages to employ the dreaded Kid With Cancer plot device without getting emotionally manipulative; at the same time, though, he sometimes seems detached from his film. Directorially, he is unambitious, content to let the story go and just stay out of the way. As a result, no matter how personal this story may have been for him, it doesn’t come across that way.
The casting, however, is pitch-perfect. The O’Malley parents are played by Aidan Quinn and Bonnie Hunt, and I hereby request more Bonnie Hunt in more movies, if you please. Jones’ slice-of-life touches are very good: The O’Malleys have eight children, and the scene of Mom trying to drag everyone to Sunday Mass is by itself worth whatever it costs you to see the movie. Aidan Quinn is remarkable, too, as the proud, stubborn father.
Kevin Pollak delivers a funny and powerful performance as the Rabbi. He is wry and wonderful. When Peter says, “You should think about putting a cross in here,” he replies, “I’ll give that some thought.” And his delivery is such that the exchange is twice as funny as it looks on paper.
And of course Adiel Stein as Peter: Here’s a delightful young actor, very natural and honest. I am curious to see what he grows up to be.
“Stolen Summer” is an innocent look at some very serious topics; it has to be innocent, or it could easily be offensive. It is not offensive, though. It’s as pleasant as a summer’s day and just as likely to fill you with fond memories.
A- (; )