Stolen Summer isn’t nearly as interesting as the enterprise that spawned it — a reality acknowledged by a newspaper advertisement in which the film title appears in smaller type than the words ”the Project Greenlight movie.” The question is, does this matter? The answer is, it doesn’t — but it should. Greenlight, see, is the aggressively promoted competition for first-time filmmakers devised by Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, and Chris Moore in a savvy marshaling of media and marketing synergy that has already produced a riveting HBO reality series about the making of the movie and a sophisticated, well-trafficked website. And in such a structure, ”Stolen Summer” is as valuable a story capper as it is a freestanding work of film. Maybe even more valuable: The worse the troubles during production (at least they looked like troubles as the story was edited to play out on HBO), the better TV and Web entertainment the project provided.
The movie itself, on the other hand, is a tremulous first step by writer-director Pete Jones, a square tale of uplift. In the Chicago summer of 1976, sweet parochial schoolboy Pete O’Malley (Adi Stein) gets a notion that the path to heaven lies in converting trusting Jewish Danny Jacobsen (Mike Weinberg) to Catholicism. Pete’s father (Aidan Quinn) is a fireman who likes beer when he’s not being brave. Danny’s father (Kevin Pollak) is a rabbi who likes brisket when he’s not being inspirational. Pete himself enjoys sports and light theology; Danny’s got leukemia, which sometimes renders theology useless.
As the boys compare religious differences, oblivious to all portents of tragedy, their fathers react with an assortment of less innocent adult responses, from expressions of mild, reflexive anti-Semitism to those of mild, reflexive ecumenical comedy. And breakthroughs in interfaith understanding ensue. The sentiments are spongy — about as damp as a very special episode of 7th Heaven, but without the economical manipulation of dialogue at which episodic TV drama excels. The child actors are shaky. The adult actors are gracious, but trapped by their roles as position-holders rather than people. (As little Pete’s mother, Bonnie Hunt turns on welcome, witty maternal bustle left over from the witty maternal bustle she donated to ”Return to Me.”)
At its best, ”Stolen Summer” is earnest and unironic — a suburban 1970s story told with the ”look here Timmy Jews don’t have horns” naïveté of 1950s TV theater. But absence of irony isn’t enough to get into feature-film heaven. Taken on its own, Jones’ first feature is a small thing, and no indicator of what he might do in the future with the TV lights turned off.
Taken as a component in a canny commercial enterprise ultimately neutral about its filmmaker’s creative future, meanwhile, the movie may be all it needs to be. Any better and the TV series might have forfeited its edge. Any worse and the edge would have cut too sharp. The entertainment gods have cast mixed blessings on ”Stolen Summer.” Let Pete Jones pray.