'Where Hope Grows': Film Review
Chris Dowling's religious-themed drama concerns the redemptive friendship between an alcoholic ex-baseball player and a young man with Down syndrome
Considering how many mediocre examples have hit multiplexes in recent years, faith-based dramas have to be graded on a curve. On that basis, director/screenwriter's Chris Dowling's effort rates a solid B+. Although its characters and storyline border on cliché—well, actually, the border is crossed with impunity—Where Hope Grows is an affecting drama marked by solid performances and a refreshing restraint in the way it delivers its religious message.
The plot centers on the burgeoning friendship between Calvin (Kristoffer Polaha), a former pro baseball player whose career ended prematurely, and Produce (David DeSanctis), a young man with Down syndrome whose nickname stems from his job as grocery store clerk.
As with so many cinematic portrayals of former athletes, Calvin is a lost soul, a single father struggling to raise his seventeen-year-old daughter Katie (McKaley Miller) who's lost respect for him due to his heavy drinking and lack of interest in procuring gainful employment. She, meanwhile, is struggling to maintain her virginity despite the pressures of her aggressive boyfriend Colt (Michael Grant), who's also Produce's co-worker.
After a chance encounter at the store, Calvin takes a shine to the endlessly enthusiastic young man who has a habit of spontaneously hugging the customers. He begins giving him baseball lessons, and is quick to rebuke anyone who refers to him as a "retard." He even implores Produce's boss to make him "employee of the month," to no avail.
It turns out that Produce is a devout churchgoer who carries a Bible with him at all times. At first this, like everything else, has little effect on Calvin. But when he misses an important job interview because of a bender, he begins to rethink his ways, even taking the important step of attending his first AA meeting, where he meets a prospective romantic interest (Brooke Burns).
Dowling's screenplay tends heavily towards the melodramatic, incorporating such plot elements as Calvin's best friend (Billy Zabka) discovering that his wife (Danica McKellar, all grown up from The Wonder Years) is possibly unfaithful and Produce intervening when Colt gets violent towards Katie by knocking him out with a fire extinguisher. And the final act, concerning a drunk-driving accident involving two of the principal characters, culminates in an ending both hokey and manipulative.
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But in its subtler moments, especially those depicting the growing friendship between Calvin and the young man who proves to be his salvation, the film is quietly affecting. Polaha handles his stereotypical role with admirable understatement, effectively letting us see Calvin's underlying decency, and DeSanctis, in his first screen role, is relaxedly appealing.
Handling its theme of spiritual redemption without the overt proselytizing all too endemic to its genre, Where Hope Grows thankfully avoids feeling like a cinematic sermon.
Production: Godspeed Pictures, Attic Light Films, Stealth Tiger Entertainment
Cast: Kristoffer Polaha, David DeSanctis, Billy Zabka, Brooke Burns, McKaley Miller, Danica McKellar
Director/screenwriter: Chris Dowling
Producers: Steve Bagheri, Simran Singh, Jose Pablo Cantillo, Milan Chakraborty
Executive producer: Jesse S. Jones
Director of photography: Alex Lehmann
Production designer: Becca Brooks Morrin
Editor: Soojin Chung
Costume designer: Carisa Kelly
Composer: Kyle Newmaster
Casting: Amber Horn, Danielle Augier, Kathy Campbell
Rated PG-13, 98 min.