‘Stolen Summer’ Evokes ‘70s, Tackles Big Questions
Published: May 24, 2012
Summer is upon us, along with all its attendant plans and pleasures, but I learned a long time ago that it won’t be nearly as much fun as it was when I was a boy, and the only thing that really mattered was baseball. Summer now is a marketing ploy: Buy this! Do this! Go there! And acquire all the gear you need to do it!
No, when I was a boy growing up in the 1970s, summer meant baseball and book lists and one week’s vacation at the beach. It meant going to the pool. It meant catching lightning bugs, eating watermelon, and sleeping in. It was simple, exactly how a good summer should be.
For Peter O’Malley, an 8-year-old boy growing up in 1976 Chicago in Pete Jones’ wonderful film “Stolen Summer,” summer should be simple too. From the start, he gets two bits of advice. For one, his father reminds him that all an 8-year-old boy needs to think about is baseball. But his Catholic school teacher, Sister Leonora Mary, admonishes him to spend summer getting on the right track with Jesus. Now I can think of many ways that Jesus and baseball might intersect, but for Pete, it’s not that simple.
Pete chooses to do something for Jesus, which leads him to devise a means for Jews to get into heaven. He sets up a lemonade stand on the front steps of a neighborhood synagogue. There he meets the bemused Rabbi Jacobsen, who turns out to have a son Pete’s age. Pete and Danny meet after Pete’s father saves the boy from a house fire at Rabbi Jacobsen’s home. The boys develop a friendship, even as their fathers struggle to form a relationship of their own.
The crisis is that Danny has leukemia, and though the disease is in remission, Danny and his family are well aware that it could return at any time. Pete, then, decides to spend his summer ensuring Danny’s eternal salvation. The boys conceive of a series of athletic feats, a decathlon, that Pete guarantees will get Danny into heaven if he successfully finishes all the challenges.
In the middle of this plotline are the conflict between Pete’s older brother and his father, a Chicago fireman and the lapsed Catholic father of more children than he can keep track of; an attempt to reconcile prejudices both the rabbi and Mr. O’Malley harbor about each other’s faith; and a struggle for a Catholic priest to balance the letter of Church law with the spirit of that law.
And all of this unfolds in a taut 90 minutes that leads to a deeply touching series of codas, while capturing perfectly the sensation of a 1976 summer that becomes very different from anything Peter O’Malley, his teacher or his father could have envisioned.
“Stolen Summer” is the final product of a fascinating television series, “Project Greenlight,” that Ben Affleck and Matt Damon conceived for HBO in 2001. The filmmakers invited fledgling directors to submit screenplays, and the winning script would be chosen for production. Out of nearly 7,000 submissions, Jones’ script was selected, and the television show chronicled the making of the film. The show was widely watched, and the idea made for entertaining and interesting viewing. But then, the film came out, and very few people actually saw it.
Since its initial release, it has become one of those special little movies that viewers hear about by word-of-mouth or find by happy coincidence. In fact, I was an avid viewer of the television show but completely forgot about the movie until a few years ago when a student in a graduate theology course introduced it to my class during a presentation. I still teach the film in my religion-in-film course.
This is a film that deserves an audience, and it is a film that surprises and rewards those who watch it. The cast is perfect. Jones was able to get splendid performances from his two primary child actors, and the adult characters are played by some of American film’s best character actors, including Bonnie Hunt, Kevin Pollack, Brian Dennehy, and Aidan Quinn. The mise-en-scene, or visual atmosphere, of the film is wonderful. From the Chicago street scenes, to the interiors of the Catholic parish and the synagogue; from the scenes at Lake Michigan to the interiors of the boys’ bedrooms, Jones gets everything right about the time, place and mood. The film is one of the most evocative portrayals of a 1970s American childhood I know.
But more important than the acting or the look of the film is what the movie has to say about faith. Jones takes risks in addressing his larger subjects of belief and ecumenical understanding. On the surface, the film might be dismissed as yet another “coming-of-age” story, and the movie does incorporate a number of devices associated with that particular genre. Some of the adult characters are also conventional and predictable in what they say and do, especially the O’Malley parents; the mother reminds Pete that his conscience takes the place of his mom when she can’t be around, and the gruff father seems perpetually attached to a beer can. But they are decent, ordinary people, and they are presented in a way that is ultimately authentic. They seem real. The same may be said for the rabbi and the priest; they are almost too good to be true, but again, they seem genuine.
The point is that Jones’ film does what the poet Richard Hugo said all good art must do: it balances the emotional with the intellectual; it addresses the truth while also affirming our sense of universal feelings.
In doing so, the film transcends the typical and actually enters the realm of mystery. A scene near the end of the film is particularly thoughtful. Pete decides that Danny must have the Eucharist, even though Pete has not yet made his own first Communion. When he is caught stealing unconsecrated hosts from the sacristy, the scene with Pete and Father Kelly becomes both a subtle and effective message about what the Eucharist really is.
The film comes, too, to the ultimate conclusion that God loves us—all of us. It affirms that our understanding of God is perhaps most meaningful when it derives from innocence and wonder rather than intellectual posturing or rigid adherence to rules alone. And it reveals the importance of simplicity, tolerance and empathy.
The summer is still for many of us a time for baseball and beaches and books, but it is also a time for movies. This summer, with the onslaught of blockbusters so cluttered with CGI effects and nerve-wracking cutting that the viewer leaves the theater in need of either a shower or a stiff drink, I encourage you to see—probably for the first time—a delightful “summer movie” that understands the real marvels of God’s human creation.
This commentary is part of a continuing series of pieces by Dr. David A. King about the work and lives of 20th-century Catholic writers, filmmakers and artists. King is associate professor of English and film studies at Kennesaw State University and an adjunct faculty member at Spring Hill College, where he teaches courses in Christianity and film and Flannery O’Connor. He is a parishioner at St. Joseph Church, Marietta, and is active in adult education at St. Joseph and at Holy Spirit Church, Atlanta.