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Stolen Summer
Directed by Pete Jones
Miramax Films
USA, 2002 - 92 MINUTES
Starring: Aidan Quinn, Kevin Pollack, Brian Dennehy, Bonnie Hunt

A Lesson In Bad Filmmaking…

After all the hype of HBO's series, Project Greenlight, and the 2.5 million dollars thrown at this first timer vehicle, I was greatly disappointed. This film was a lesson in what NOT to do when making a film - from the writing to the acting to the camera work, it was, sadly, a waste of time.

The premise could have been interesting - a Catholic boy decides he wants to avoid hell by helping Jews get into heaven. His quest begins with lemonade and ends with helping a dying Jewish boy complete a decathalon of sorts. Thrown in is an aggravated mother, an drinking and aggravated father, an aggravated and sad rabbi, a dead secretary, a lifeguard who wants to be a doctor and a couple of funerals. Basically, everyone is aggravated in the film. Can you guess how the audience felt after 20 minutes?

The writing is weak - full of clichés and overstated ideas. The dialogue could have easily cut in half without losing any of the story. The constant chatter of the characters was not akin to the tradition of Mamet and Allen but closer to nervous rambling. The key here is there was no silence - no place to reflect, take a beat, pause and think on what is meant by the dialogue. For a film about religion and God, it lacked sincerity and emotional connection as well as a spirituality one would expect from a film on this topic.

I had expected the wonder, awe and terror of what it is like for a child to comprehend and wrestle with the concept of death and God. I had expected the magic of seeing through a child's eyes, taking on the larger idea of a quest. Great children's films do this wonderfully - the fable and wonder of "Matilda", the emotion and adventure of "ET", the terror of "Sixth Sense", and the joy and bonding of "Stand By Me". "Stolen Summer" lacked magic or even a child's perspective. Pete Jones and crew missed many opportunities to connect the world of a child's mind and heart with what was going on in the story.

There were tangents that did not add to the story but rather distracted the viewer. The scenes with the son as lifeguard did not illustrate anything but a bigoted father figure, which had been well established early on. Several moments with Brian Dennehy as the priest seemed rushed and distracted. Showing the secretary before she dies didn't need to happen. Bonnie Hunt hitting her son several times in the opening sequence was unbelievable and not needed. The problem with this film is too much indicating and overstating what is going on - there is no discovery for the viewer, no chance to be surprised, because everything is explained in a long-winded manner. Predictable and tedious, the film lacks irony or humor.

The acting by the two boys, Adi Stein and Mike Weinberg, was stilted, emotionless and full of earnest overacting. The delivery reminded me of a long Tide commercial, where each line is delivered with spunk and perkiness. Their dialogue, especially Adi Stein's, was way too long to be believable and over-simplified. The intelligence and emotion that could have filled the screen was completely absent. It was no fun watching two boys who seemingly had no emotional connection to each other wander around Chicago aimlessly seeking something neither really wanted. Where was the fun, the childlike exploration of their world, the extremes of emotion that children have when they truly desire something? The quest seemed more like a list of chores than a spiritual journey.

The adults fare a little better, but the writing again hinders them. I truly believed Aiden Quinn wanted to get laid but that was about it. Again, the aggravation of the adults permeated every scene. Bickering became yelling and shoving at one point, but the emotion behind it was lacking. There is too much annoyance in the adults to enjoy watching them for too long.

The camera work was shaky and underlit at times. I could not believe that Pete Biagi, the Director of Photography, didn't use a tripod more often. The jittering of the camera didn't even seem to be a stylistic choice, since it wasn't consistent - it ranged from all-out hand held to clumsy steadycam shots, or so it seemed. The scenes were underlit, resulting in drab and colorless footage. Above all, film is a visual medium and this film lacked anything visually interesting to look at. The shots were limited and centered on medium shots of the actors. There was nothing beautiful to highlight the spiritual quest or supposed emotion in this film.

The music sounded generic - a licensed music track mixing standard emotional cues with low intensity or interest. The sets were very 1970's but dark and uninteresting. The outdoor locations could have been shot better, considering the sunsets and beach scenes, but the perspective was predictable and boring - the camera never seemed to view the world from a child's eyes at all.

The film went on too long and should have ended at least ten minutes before the final scene. "Stolen Summer" rambled on, unsure of how it should end, continuing pointlessly. All the situations ended neatly but nothing seemed to have been discovered or resolved. In total, it reminded me of a dumbed down episode of "Seventh Heaven", if that is even possible.

The film had potential that it never came close to achieving. I had hoped Pete Jones would have made a film that may not have been perfect but reflected a good, solid try. Instead, his tepid approach to filmmaking disappoints on every level. "Stolen Summer" seems a wasteful hype-driven vehicle for HBO and Miramax, banking not on good filmmaking but on the "indie" genre and hopeful filmmakers. Remarkably, it seems they chose the safest script, from a group of finalist that lacked diversity or daring. Perhaps next time around, Miramax and HBO will look for a daring departure rather than a roundtrip ticket to dullsville.

By Melissa Ulto
Copyright 2002

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[email protected] | April 2002 | Issue 25
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