Gavin MacLeod, Jansen Panettiere, Robert Guillaume
Rich Christiano, Dave Christiano
Five & Two Pictures
During a rare weekend in which two Christian-themed films open in Indianapolis, co-writer/director Rich Christiano's The Secrets of Jonathan Sperry is the clear winner between the two, a touching, beautifully shot and focused film that manages to be both evangelical in dialogue and universal in its themes and subject matter.
The Secrets of Jonathan Sperry centers around best buddies Dustin (Jansen Panettiere), Albert (Frankie Ryan Manriquez) and Mark (Allen Isaacson), three 12-year-old boys looking forward to a fun summer in 1970. When Dustin mows the lawn of 75-year-old Jonathan Sperry (Gavin MacLeod), a man he's seen at church, a unique friendship develops destined to leave lifelong lessons in its wake.
The Secrets of Jonathan Sperry is similar in tone and theology to the wildly successful Fire Proof, a film from the folks at Sherwood Baptist Church that has reinforced the viability of film as a method of ministry and outreach. While Fire Proof was arguably less universal in its appeal than its predecessor, Facing the Giants, the film carried with it both universal themes and an uncompromising theology as resolution. The same is true for The Secrets of Jonathan Sperry and, while that lack of compromise may limit the film's wider appeal, it is likely to make it even more popular with the increasingly influential Christian moviegoer. Where this film transcends Fire Proof is in the quality of its acting, especially that of Gavin MacLeod, whose performance far exceeds that of Kirk Cameron's well meaning yet stilted turn in Fire Proof.
On an estimated $1,000,000 production budget, Christiano has assembled a fine looking and well acted production that is both intelligently crafted and sensitively written by Christiano and his brother, Dave Christiano. While far too often Christian filmmakers tend to toss in modest celebrity "names" in an effort to market their films, The Secrets of Jonathan Sperry is wonderfully cast including its two Hollywood household names of Gavin MacLeod and Robert Guillaume, whom most remember as television's Benson.
The Secrets of Jonathan Sperry, unlike the weekend's other Christian-themed film Letters to God, doesn't feel like its trying to be a thinly veiled wide release film with a Gospel message. Instead, this film feels like it's trying to be a Gospel-centered film shaped and molded in such a way as to make it a vehicle for reaching a wider audience. Will it succeed? Time will tell, though given its over-riding gentle nature and family friendly storyline it's much more likely to follow its nationwide limited release with a more successful run on home video.
Along with the solid performances of MacLeod, most known for his stint on The Love Boat, and Guillaume, the film features great performances from its trio of young stars, most notably Jansen Panettiere's energetic and sensitive turn as young Dustin.
Filmed on location in the state of New York, the film is beautifully shot by D.P. Phillip Hurn, while Jasper Randall's original score complements the film magnificently with its vibrance and energy.
The Secrets of Jonathan Sperry has actually been in limited release since early 2009, slowly building both its critical and box-office cred while working its way around the nation with a variety of ministry partners, both church-related and media. Christiano himself has been building his filmmaking credibility over the past 15 years on smaller projects, and this film may very well turn him into a household name both inside and outside the Christian arts scene.
Unapologetically Christian in its message and tone, The Secrets of Jonathan Sperry may very well be the next Gospel-tinged film to make its mark on the box-office and to attract a wider audience with its universal themes of friendship, forgiveness and the absolute importance of mentoring one another. With a healthy dose of both laughter and tears, The Secrets of Jonathan Sperry is easily destined to be one of 2010's highlights of Christian cinema.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic