Oh, this is a good movie!
Although it played on 300 theater screens and became one of the top 15 grossing independent theatrical movies of 2009, it got by me. Finally, I was sent a screener and was I surprised. It is a very moving, well-made production.
From the press notes: "The film opens with Dustin, Albert and Mark, 12-year-old boys and best friends, looking forward to a summer of fun in 1970. When Dustin mows the lawn of 75-year-old Jonathan Sperry (Gavin MacLeod), a man he has seen at church, a unique friendship and mentorship develops that sets Dustin and his friends on a path of faith and self-discovery."
Writer/director Rich Christiano does some impressive work, first giving an authentic remembrance of the period. Then there is the superb casting of the three lead boys. Jansen Panettiere, the younger brother of Heroes' Hayden P., follows in his sister's footsteps, bringing a charm and relateability to the role. The kid's a pro.
Supported by humorous, touching and real preteen dialogue, the lads resurrect the camaraderie found in Rob Reiner's 1986 film, Stand by Me. It has an affectionate (though myopic) look at a different time in America, the director's purpose being to indicate that society continues to become more complex and nerve-racking as it furthers itself from biblical precepts. And the filmmaker is aptly aided by those behind the camera who know what they're doing.
Though the press notes erroneously suggest that 1970 was a "simpler" time (involvement in Viet Nam was dividing our nation, free love and freer drug use were unbound, and President Richard Nixon was about to disgrace himself – simpler, my foot) and I doubt you could have found three boys who didn't pepper their speech with eyebrow-raising colloquialisms during that era (I mean, nobody swears in this movie, not even the bully). Still, the production shows us what we can become when we reverence the Lord, study His Word, and take the salvation of others seriously.
Gavin MacLeod, from The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Love Boat, said of his role: "I have been acting for more than 60 years and have worked with some of the biggest stars in the history of show business, but the greatest honor I have ever had was to play the role of Jonathan Sperry. This film has all the elements that make a good movie. It's funny, encouraging and very touching. I am so proud of the inspirational message this movie delivers for the Lord."
Mr. Christiano says, The Secrets of Jonathan Sperry shows us how one person, regardless of age, can be a positive influence on children, and transform their lives."
This is an entertaining, absorbing film, one that's about something: character, forgiveness and witnessing. A true story, I teared up several times and by film's end was reminded of the reason for forgiving others. And just as George Bailey discovered in It's a Wonderful Life, our words and deeds can affect the lives of so many others.
Phase 4 Films will distribute The Secrets of Jonathan Sperry on DVD May 4, 2010. Rated PG, the 96-minute DVD contains an informative featurette, and an interesting commentary track by the director and Mr. MacLeod.