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Project Greenlight contest winner opens this weekend

By Christy Lemire, The Associated Press
Saturday March 23, 2002

‘Stolen Summer” clearly is the work of a first-time filmmaker who has a lot to learn. That was supposed to be its charm; instead, it’s the film’s downfall. 

Writer-director Pete Jones won the “Project Greenlight” online screenplay competition, which Matt Damon and Ben Affleck — Oscar winners for the script of 1997’s “Good Will Hunting” — created with Miramax Films and others to give a chance to an aspiring filmmaker with no connections. 

Of thousands of entries, they chose Jones’ “Stolen Summer,” the story of a Catholic boy who tries to convert a young Jewish friend who has leukemia during the summer of 1976 in Chicago. 

But the HBO documentary series about the making of “Stolen Summer” has drawn more attention than the movie itself. By shining a harsh light on the difficulties of making a small-budget movie, on pouting stars and on-set squabbles between Jones and co-executive producer Chris Moore, it made for riveting reality TV. 

Miramax has hyped the behind-the-scenes drama more than the on-screen drama, perhaps because the studio is all too aware of how “Stolen Summer” turned out. At the top of the film’s press notes, in big letters, it says: “You saw the back-stabbing. Now see the final cut.” At the bottom, beneath the words “Project Greenlight,” is the film’s title. 

“Stolen Summer” isn’t a complete failure — its intentions, and the process behind the film, are admirable — but it’s a technical mess. Jones holds establishing shots too long and rushes other moments, depleting them of their inherent drama. There’s a laugh-out-loud lapse in continuity during one scene, when a character is holding a beer can, then he isn’t, then he’s offered a beer as if he never had one in the first place. 

But the more serious problem is with the kids who play the two main characters. I hate to bash them — I really do, they’re just so darn cute — but they deliver their lines as if they’re reading them for the first time off of cue cards. 

They’re so awkward, so self-aware, it’s impossible to connect with them. And that’s unfortunate, because they’re supposed to be the conduits for the movie’s big, important themes about faith, tolerance and friendship. 

Pete O’Malley (Adi Stein), one of eight children in an Irish Catholic family, is a smart-aleck kid who’s always in trouble with the nuns at school. During the summer after the second grade, he fears he’s going to hell, and decides he must do something to redeem himself. 

He pedals his bike over to the local synagogue, where he meets Rabbi Jacobsen (Kevin Pollak), and persuades the rabbi’s son, Danny (Mike Weinberg), because he’s sick, to convert to Catholicism to try to get into heaven. 

The two boys devise a set of tests to prove Danny’s faith — a “decathlon,” they call it — an agonizingly dry sequence in which Danny sprints along the shore at the beach and skips stones in the water. Intrusive, jaunty music pops up to signal moments of youthful whimsy. 

Pete’s father (Aidan Quinn), a blue-collar, beer-drinking firefighter, wants him to stay away from the synagogue. His mother (Bonnie Hunt) thinks his quest is harmless, but is reluctant to cross her husband. 

Brian Dennehy shows up every once in a while as a stern priest who also disapproves of Pete tweaking Catholicism, even if it could help a sick child. His character’s two-dimensional presence barely registers. 

Jones raises serious issues about Judaism and Catholicism and the mystery of faith, which requires a deft touch that the film lacks. Pete asks Rabbi Jacobsen in a tiny, quizzical voice about that “thing” he wears on his head; later, Pete’s dad screams at the rabbi in his front yard in a misunderstanding over beliefs. 

And the idea of one person trying to change another’s religious views — no matter how innocent or benevolent the intentions — is fundamentally disturbing. 

“Stolen Summer” is rated PG for thematic elements and language. Running time: 92 minutes. One and a half stars (out of four).