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The Independent Critic

STARRING
James Garner, Abigail Breslin, Drew Fuller, Ali Hillis, Brian Dennehy
DIRECTOR
Michael Sajbel
SCREENPLAY
Cheryl McKay, Jim Stovall
MPAA RATING
Rated PG
RUNNING TIME
115 Mins.
DISTRIBUTED BY
The Bigger Picture/FoxFaith
 "The Ultimate Gift" Review 
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Based upon Jim Stovall's self-published best seller of the same name, "The Ultimate Gift" is a film that very much lives the mantra of Stovall...Share the gift, Change the world.

The film centers on the story of one particular young man, Jason Stevens (Drew Fuller of "Charmed"), a young man whose entire life has been filled with prosperity and privilege. Only the tragic, unexplained death of his father while on a trip with his grandfather has marred what seems like, dare I say, a charmed life. Yet Jason, much like the rest of his family, has become concerned only with money, instant gratification and those things that may really distract him from all his hopes and dreams.

When his grandfather (James Garner) dies, young Jason is sent on a journey to receive his inheritance, or as his grandfather calls it, his ultimate gift.

Along the way, Jason becomes a different human being who experiences the gifts of work, of friendship, of dreams, of money along with several other things. In many ways, "The Ultimate Gift" plays with a similar in tone to Garner's recent "The Notebook" and a similarly themed film, "Pay it Forward." It is an easily reached conclusion that Jason will resist, Jason will rebel, Jason will be humbled and Jason will learn powerful life lessons and receive his ultimate gift.

"The Ultimate Gift" is challenged by many of the same issues that director Michael Sajbel faced with his last film, "One Night with the King." "The Ultimate Gift" struggles to establish a consistent tone for its storyline or characters. At times, it feels as if we are watching a lighthearted romance. Other times, it feels as if are watching an inspirational journey. Still other times, it feels as if we are in the midst of a film about finding hope within tragedy.

Are we, perhaps, watching all three? This is entirely possible, yet none of the tones are established so soundly that we are allowed to become fully invested in their characters, their stories, their hopes, their dreams or their life experiences. Thus, when the film's last 15 minutes offers both tragedy and hope it rings rather hollow and, much due to a magnificent performance by Abigail Breslin, the tragedy plays much stronger than the hope.

Indeed, it is young Abigail Breslin's performance as a young girl dying of leukemia who becomes Jason's one true friend that elevates "The Ultimate Gift" above mediocrity. Breslin, much like in her highly touted "Little Miss Sunshine" performance this year, offers a performance brimming with tenderness, hope, feistiness and utter delight. Breslin is rapidly becoming one of America's best young actresses.

Likewise, as her mother, Ali Hillis ("Open Water 2" and "American Gun") offers a multi-layered, winning performance as a young mother facing the loss of her daughter. Even in the most predictable of scenes, Hillis offers a freshness and sensitivity that provides a balance to the often light approach of the film.

Drew Fuller, on the other hand, struggles in a role  that requires him to journey from self-serving playboy to a man of uncommon compassion and insight. Fuller seems most hindered by an often paint-by-numbers script from Cheryl McKay that leads to an ultimately unconvincing ending. Supporting performances by Bill Cobbs as the attorney and executor of the will and Lee Meriwether as his assistant are too under-developed to truly impact the film. Only Brian Dennehy seems to really shine in his supporting role as a wealthy farmer who provides Jason the gift of work.

Those who have read Stovall's book are likely to agree that "The Ultimate Gift" serves as sort of a "Cliff's Notes" version of Stovall's ideas about changing the world. The film shows approximately 6 of the 12 gifts that Jason supposedly receives, yet never actually references the remaining gifts. This absence becomes even more noticeable when the closing credits offer a refresher on the gifts that Jason has received.

Likewise, there's a scene near the end of the film in which Jason has completed his tasks and is to receive his ultimate gift. There's an awkward, unexplained showing of Jason committing various misdemeanors while he was temporarily homeless. These acts were not seen in the film, and are never referenced in the film or as Jason is to receive his ultimate gift. The scene plays awkwardly and feels as if it has been edited in a way that leaves it feeling incomplete.

There are moments in "The Ultimate Gift" where its obvious that the film should be about the relationship between a mother and daughter. These scenes are charming, funny, sweet, sincere and far more enlightening than anything else that unfolds onscreen. It is these two characters, not that of Jason, who appear most to get the essence of Stovall's message...share the gift, change the world.

In some ways, "The Ultimate Gift" will transcend its reviews.  Films that seek to inspire often receive scathing reviews from film critics, writers and columnists who love to weed out anything that manipulates their emotions and/or isn't the usual Hollywood fare. This is a film that will inspire many, frustrate others and simply be dismissed by even more as nothing more than a cinematic greeting card.

"The Ultimate Gift" isn't the film I'd hoped it would be, however, it is still a film that will play well with families, those on healing journeys and those who believe in Stovall's vision of sharing the gift and changing the world.

While this film adaptation of Jim Stovall's brilliant book isn't quite an "ultimate gift" itself, it will be a treasured gift for those who seek films that inspire, teach and transform.

For a special treat, fans of Stovall, who is blind, should watch a scene near the end as Stovall himself makes a cameo in the film as a limo driver. 

"The Ultimate Gift" is currently playing during the 2006 Heartland Film Festival and received the festival's "Crystal Heart Award." The Heartland Film Festival continues throughout the week of October 23rd with multiple showings of "The Ultimate Gift." The film is currently on the festival circuit with a likely release in March 2007.


 

© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic
    The Official Rating Guideline
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