"Stolen Summer," the movie that TV audiences saw being made in the bizarre "reality" series "Project Greenlight," takes place back in the summer of 1976, a time of racial tensions and the lingering aftermath of the Vietnam War. As in most period pieces set during a writer's childhood years, this one is bathed in nostalgia. It's a likable, low-pressure, low-budget film with good actors (Aidan Quinn, Bonnie Hunt, Kevin Pollak and, in a bit part, Brian Dennehy) and good intentions. But the most interesting things about it went on behind the camera.
Made by first-time Chicago writer-director Pete Jones, "Stolen Summer" focuses with sympathy on an Irish Catholic family, a Jewish family and the tragic situation that draws them together: the friendship of two boys that blossoms while one of them is dying from leukemia. The friendship starts when one of the boys, 8-year-old Pete O'Malley (Adi Stein), misperceives a nun's instructions on salvation and decides to spend his summer converting Jews to Christianity - a "crusade" that leads him to 7-year-old Danny Jacobsen (Michael Weinberg) and Danny's rabbi father (Pollak). Rabbi Jacobsen, amazingly tolerant of Pete's project even when the lad sets up a lemonade-and-conversion stand on his synagogue steps, is also understanding when confronted with the lightly veiled anti-Semitism of Pete's fireman dad, Joe (Quinn).
Gradually, as the summer wears on, the two families draw closer together, inspired by the example of the two boys - and by an elaborate "decathlon" Pete dreams up to assure Danny a place in heaven. It sounds schmaltzy and predictable, and it is. Whatever your preconceptions, though, it's a better film than you'd imagine if you watched "Project Greenlight," the 12-part reality-TV series produced, like "Summer," by buddies Matt Damon and Ben Affleck.
That show, which began on HBO last December, chronicled "Stolen Summer's" shoot in Chicago through constant fly-on-the-wall coverage. And it made "Summer" look like a classic botch. As the "Greenlight" cameras rolled relentlessly, we see every catastrophe on the low-budget shoot - from fouled-up sound recording under the "El" to a baseball game shot during torrential rains - with first-time writer-director Jones and his inexperienced crew making blunder after blunder, while Miramax execs waffled and Jones' bearish producer, Chris Moore, raged.
Though you might not suspect it from the series, "Stolen Summer" has definite qualities. It's good-hearted, it has some fine acting - especially from Quinn, Pollak, Dennehy (as a gruff priest) and Bonnie Hunt as Pete's mom - and it's sometimes moving and smart about urban blue-collar families and the religious tensions bubbling under the surface of everyday life.
Watching the movie without the evidence of "Project Greenlight," you might not guess the turmoil of its making, might simply see the problems of an inexperienced director with a nondescript visual style who can't impart much dramatic rhythm to his own material. What saves the movie is the tenderness of the writing and the acting of the adults - particularly the marvelous Hunt, who suggests a resourceful blue-collar wife and mother with great warmth and intelligence, from the casual slaps Margaret administers to her kids to the domestic blackmail she uses on Joe. Quinn's Joe at times seems like a younger, sexier Archie Bunker. But he's surprisingly moving, too. Throughout, he convincingly suggests that the same qualities that can make Joe a hero (when he races into the flames to save Danny) can also feed his stubbornness and prejudice, his tendency to bully his family. Pollak, meanwhile, makes something touching of the kind of wise-mensch character that can defeat an unwary or shallow actor.
The movie's chief weakness (which you can sense coming in the documentary) is its portrayal of the children. Neither boy seems remotely real or convincing. It's hard to accept Pete's lemonade crusade (or Rabbi Jacobsen's reaction to it), and it's harder to believe in Danny's assent to Pete's decathlon: a series of Olympic-style sports trials designed to save his soul. Jones gives Pete his own name, and he's obviously drawing from real life here - which makes it doubly strange that Jones' surrogate is the least convincing character in the movie.
You can understand why Damon and Affleck liked and chose this script; it's about urban friendship, in the most intense way possible. But wasn't it always a mistake to assume that an inexperienced newcomer who wrote a likable (or even brilliant) script could be the right person to direct it? Looking at "Project Greenlight," you almost get the feeling Jones is being set up as much as he's being helped, that his angels Damon and Affleck are his devils as well, beckoning him toward disaster. "Stolen Summer" is no disaster, though. It's merely one more misfire fortunate enough to attract actors like Bonnie Hunt and Aidan Quinn, who almost make it work.
Directed and written by Pete Jones; photographed by Pete Biagi; edited by Gregg Featherman; production designed by Deborah Herbert; music by Danny Lux; produced by Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Chris Moore. A Miramax Films release; opens Friday, March 22. Running time: 1:31. MPAA rating: PG (thematic elements, language).
Joe O'Malley - Aidan Quinn
Margaret O'Malley - Bonnie Hunt
Rabbi Jacobsen - Kevin Pollak
Pete O'Malley - Adi Stein
Danny Jacobsen - Michael Weinberg
Father Kelly - Brian Dennehy Patrick O'Malley - Eddie Kaye Thomas
Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune movie critic.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times