In the early 1970s, my family moved to the Memphis area from east Tennessee. Some my first experiences here include being approached by earnest teenage Christians who asked me, “If you died today, would you go to Heaven or Hell?” Happily, I had an answer that satisfied them, but even as a twelve year old, something in their approach did not sit right with me. I thought, “If they come across as packaged and pushy to me, how must they come across to someone who is not a Christian?” They didn’t seem to be sharing a hope or introducing a person, but rather a formula, which, if followed, guaranteed one a free trip to Heaven no matter what they did from that day on.
In the movie, Stolen Summer, 8 year old Catholic, Pete O’Malley, sets out on a mission to guarantee his own admission to Heaven by converting a Jewish person to the Christian faith before school re-opens in the fall. He decides to open a “free lemonade, free trip to Heaven” stand and sets up shop in front of a nearby synagogue. Though the rabbi treats him with kindness, business is slow, so he focuses his mission upon the rabbi’s son Daniel, who is in remission from Leukemia. Since both the boys are too young to take communion, Pete devises an alternative series of tests through which he hopes Danny can earn the right to get into heaven, including rock skipping, jumping hurdles and finally a risky swim from the beach to a bouy, which is a huge feat for chemo weakened, 7 year old Daniel.
There are multiple story lines running through the movie and most of them relate to sorting through what we believe, understanding it, and finding a way to transmit our ideas and values to someone else in a meaningful way. The characters in the movie are continually stumbling over their own preconceived notions and blind spots, which leads to tense, emotional scenes and some humorous ones as well.
At the movies’ end young Pete concludes that “Jesus is just a symbol that stands for good,” and that it doesn’t matter what you call him as long as you know what he stands for. While I do not agree that Jesus is “just a symbol,” he did come to us as a human representation of the values and character of God. Very often, just as young Pete did, we do reduce Jesus to a formula and a symbol and then hang our own cultural and political agendas upon him. Even worse, we come up with clever marketing schemes to “sell” him to those we hope to convert. Who Jesus really is and what he taught is totally lost in the process.
Aiden Quinn plays Pete’s stubborn, reactionary father, but manages to serve up some affection and wisdom along the way, as do the other adult characters in the story. The movie has a sweet “family feel” to it, but parents might want to watch it first to consider how they would discuss the issues of faith, God and diversity, as these are the dominant themes of the movie. The movie is rated PG for thematic elements and language.
Starring Aidan Quinn, Bonnie Hunt, Kevin Pollack, and Brian Dennehy
Available from Netflix on DVD