dvd review: Stolen Summer ***

When Ben Affleck, Matt Damon and a couple friends came up with the idea for “Project Greenlight,” they had little idea of the impact it would make. What started as a noble attempt to give unknown filmmakers a chance, blossomed into a full-scale soap opera, complete with backstabbing, sabotage and other Jerry Springer-like shenanigans. The final result of the HBO series was Stolen Summer, a modest film from a rookie writer/director.

Stolen Summer was the product of the contest – one chosen out of thousands of scripts to be made into a feature film. The winner of the contest was Pete Jones, a likeable enough guy, who, as promised, is no different than the average Joe. His script was given a $1 million budget and a professional staff, headed by executive producers Affleck and Damon, and producer Chris Moore.

“Project Greenlight” was a documentary series about the entire process, from the announcement of the winner to the film’s premiere. On the series, the making of the film was presented as a hectic mess. From the near firing of a co-producer to the epic battles between filmmakers and the studio – nothing seemed to go smoothly for Jones. Yet his film, Stolen Summer, just released on DVD, is a nice little movie with a suitably warm, homegrown feel.

Stolen Summer got its theatrical release as guaranteed, but it failed to expand outside of a few theaters in New York and Los Angeles. Its DVD release has done brisk business, although the title is dwarfed by the “Project Greenlight” logo hovering above it. Obviously, the marketing of the film alone was not as strong as hoped, thus forcing it to ride the coattails of the popular series.

Stolen Summer is a quaint family movie, but it dabbles with serious subject matter. The plot is centered on a young Catholic boy (played by Adiel Stein) who tries to get a Jewish boy (Mike Weinberg) into heaven. Their fathers, one a stubborn firefighter (Aidan Quinn) and the other a friendly rabbi (Kevin Pollak), argue over their children’s actions and prominent religions. The story takes place in the 1970s Chicago, a time Jones knew from experience.

Stein is just average in his role, totally overshadowed by his co-star, Weinberg. Weinberg’s character is younger than Stein’s, and (for the purpose of drama) spiced with leukemia. Given some meaty subject matter to deal with, Weinberg turns in a great performance for an actor whose age hasn’t hit double digits. Pollak and Quinn deliver believable performances.

The film also extracts believability from Jones’ experiences. He lived the 70s Chicago life, and several of the film’s scenes were shot in locations that he knew from his childhood. It’s not difficult to see why his screenplay beat out thousands, and his direction is sufficient enough to keep the film afloat. Despite the conniving nature of the director of photography, Pete Biagi, on “Project Greenlight,” the cinematography is quite notable.

If you watched the show, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the only person holding the movie together is producer Chris Moore, who came up with the show’s concept along with Affleck and Damon. While the marquee names were mainly involved in the beginning of “Project Greenlight,” Moore was hands-on in the entire process. His past credits include Good Will Hunting and American Pie, and, despite his egotistical rampages, he was the person most responsible for the finished product’s quality.

This DVD is weak on extra features. The included cut scenes are pointless, although the filmmakers’ commentary is informative. On the commentary track are Jones, Moore and co-producer Jeff Balis, a goofy screw-up who was fired and rehired by his friend Moore during the making of the movie. This makes for especially funny moments, like a scene that begins with Balis quipping, “When we filmed this scene, I was technically fired.” You can almost hear Moore slapping him in the back of the head.

Shawn Wines can be reached at shawnwines@aol.com.