||If it weren't for its origin as the focus of "Project Greenlight," the HBO series that chronicled the production of Pete Jones' debut picture as the result of a screenwriting contest sponsored by Miramax Pictures (and its fair-haired boys Matt Damon and Ben Affleck), it's unlikely that "Stolen Summer" would ever have landed in theatres. In an early episode of the TV show, when the "Will Hunting" duo and company honchos were sifting through scripts that wannabes had submitted and Jones' was championed by some, Damon remarked that to him, it resembled a network afterschool special. As it turns out, he was prescient. Maybe on the small screen the movie would be tolerable as heavy-handed family-friendly fare; in a real auditorium, it's woefully out of place.
The premise of "Stolen Summer" is almost unconscionably cloying and forced. In 1970s Chicago, Pete O'Malley (Adi Stein), a young Catholic lad, becomes convinced that he can insure his own welcome to heaven by converting a Jew to his faith. He takes his summertime mission to a nearby synagogue, where he meets kindly Rabbi Jacobsen (Kevin Pollak) and eventually the rabbi's son Danny (Michael Weinberg), who's in remission from cancer and seems the perfect candidate. Not quite understanding proper church procedure, Pete decides that Danny should prove his worth by completing a decathlon he's constructed, the final element of which will be swimming out to a buoy in Lake Michigan. But matters are complicated by Danny's father Joe (Aidan Quinn), a fireman who saves Danny from a burning house. Though his good-natured wife Margaret (Bonnie Hunt) sees no harm in Pete's quest, Joe--who's both a mite prejudiced and threatened by an inability to control his children as strictly as he'd like--orders him to drop it; Joe becomes even more adamant when Jacobsen arranges a college scholarship for Pete's older brother (Eddie Kaye Thomas), who otherwise would have to take a city job Joe's arranged for him. Joe, you see, is blinded by his misplaced pride--but only temporarily, of course--he'll see the light before things wrap up And, needless to say, Danny's illness recurs, too.
Obviously Jones' script is contrived, maudlin and cliche-ridden. Happily the adult cast members--Quinn, Hunt, Pollak and a unusually subdued Brian Dennehy as the O'Malley's stern but understanding pastor--salvage as much of it as they can with thoughtful, mostly restrained performances that minimize its weaknesses. Unfortunately, their efforts are pretty much sabotaged by the young leads, who frankly aren't ready for prime time. Stein and Weinberg are appealing enough kids, but their line readings are terribly amateurish, and Jones' direction of them is so slack as to seem virtually nonexistent. Even on the tube the tykes would be unbearably cutesy; on the big screen their scenes are close to torture.
Of course, despite its flaws "Stolen Summer" will be required viewing for those who got hooked on "Project Greenlight" and want to find out whether things turned out quite as badly as the troubled production suggested they might. The answer is no; but it's unlikely that any movie, however awful, could have met such low expectations. The sad fact, however, is that "Project Greenlight" was far more enjoyable than the picture it spawned. What Jones' effort proves yet again is that it's all in the writing: if this sappy script was the best the contest received, those rejected must have been astronomically bad.