I will confess to having just a little bit of resistance to watching "A Thousand Hills," a new family feature film about young man, David Byrd (Jon Bowes), a 13-year-old determined to save his family's farm from a ruthless land developer by using what he sees as his only true gift, his voice, and raising money by making a CD. Along the way, David goes from being a young boy to a young man and learns lessons about trust, faith, and the strength of his one voice.
Before you get the wrong idea, I wasn't really resistant to the film itself. It would be hard to have anything against "A Thousand Hills," a throwback film to the days when filmmakers offered truly family friendly entertainment with positive and inspiring messages without the all too familiar diversionary special effects.
The problem was solely about me. I'd had the pleasure of meeting the film's lead, Jon Bowes, during the recent Lake County Film Festival and found him to be a refreshingly authentic and genuine young man.
In other words, I really WANTED to like this film. The last time I experienced this feeling was during a screening of "Secret of the Cave" during the 2006 Heartland Film Festival. I'd had the opportunity to interview that film's young lead and ended up being somewhat disappointed with that cinematic experience.
Do you have any idea how hard it is to write a bad review of a film after you've met the film's child star?
Man, it sucks.
No such problem with "A Thousand Hills," a sweet and inspiring film featuring strong performances across the board, truly beautiful cinematography and a script by Canadian screenwriter Sandra Bowes that was both unabashedly sentimental yet pointed in its portrayal of the struggle of the independent farmer.
Filmed largely in Queensland, Ontario, "A Thousand Hills" utilized real-life locations in the small town such as a local church, a farm and a theatre to give the film a tremendously natural look while also using gifted local actors who could obviously identify with the film's storyline.
Director Mary Allison Wilmarth avoided many of the traps of contemporary family films by focusing "A Thousand Hills" squarely upon the relationships between the characters. While the film certainly has its share of conflicts and challenging moments, Wilmarth's film succeeds because these situations are largely borne out of naturally developed characters and relationships rather than forced situations and manufactured conflicts.
As David, Jon Bowes beautifully captures a young man who is both immensely gifted and yet a tightly wound ball of insecurities. Rather than allow David to blossom overnight, Bowes smartly played the young man as one who slowly matures and grows into his newly discovered gift increasingly surrounded by those he can truly trust. It's a patient, mature performance that makes the film's ending tremendously satisfying.
In well-developed supporting roles, Doug Tardif shines as GGF (great great Fred), David's eccentric grandfather who both challenges and inspires David to stretch beyond himself. While his character is, at first glance, relatively basic by film's end it becomes apparent that Tardif has made GGF a person we deeply care about.
Art Furniss and Lisa Moule offer strong performances as David's parents, struggling to hold onto the family farm while never losing sight that their family is more important. As David's sister, Megan Kingsbury lights up the screen in her scenes despite her character feeling a tad underwritten and a side story with her going off to record with a seemingly con-artist record producer falling flat, disappearing for awhile and largely being unresolved.
While both Bowes and Kingsbury sing beautifully in the film, Kingsbury offers a particularly touching version of "Amazing Grace."
Jessica Schellenberg is the other true find of "A Thousand Hills," as Kelly, the prettiest girl in school and the distant object of David's affection.
A modestly budgeted independent film, "A Thousand Hills" is truly beautiful to behold with camera work from Ioana Vasile that expertly captures the simple charm of this small town. Given the film's modest budget, "A Thousand Hills" experiences surprisingly few production glitches along the way. Likewise, Rob Pottorf's musical score enhances both the film's small town feeling and sense of faith.
While "A Thousand Hills" is undeniably a film centered in faith, especially as much of David's "plan" is birthed after a vision he believes is from God, Wilmarth and screenwriter Bowes have weaved the film's faith aspects into the real world story quite seamlessly.
Films like "A Thousand Hills" are rarities in the cinematic world these days. Devoid of special effects and action, in many ways "A Thousand Hills" feels like a 1970's Disney film with its simple storyline, genuine family spirit, positive values and gentle way of teaching lessons about life.
"A Thousand Hills" also offers, to great benefit to both children's ministries and Sunday School programs, a variety of teaching lessons on its website dealing with such topics as farmland issues, perseverance, faith, forgiveness and "Does God speak to kids?"
Available for purchase on its website, "A Thousand Hills" is a wonderful film for the entire family and a true resource for urban, suburban and rural church programs looking for unique ways to reach their young people.
Simple. Honest. Touching. Real. Entertaining. Faithful. True. There are a thousand reasons for you to watch "A Thousand Hills."
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic