As Montell Jordan would say "This is how you do it." This is how you make an emotionally satisfying and intellectually stimulating faith-based film that doesn't insult its audience and doesn't compromise its values while actually telling a story that will resonate with audiences cross the spectrum of life.
Yep, Where Hope Grows, familiar to Heartland Film Festival audiences under the title Produce: Where Hope Grows, is how you do it. After a successful festival run that included the Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature at last year's Heartland Film Festival, Where Hope Grows was picked up by indie distributor Roadside Attractions for a limited nationwide run and what will inevitably be a much more prosperous run on home video.
Writer/director Chris Dowling is wise enough to know that true faith is woven into the fabric of real life. Where Hope Grows doesn't spend a whole lot of time telling us to what to believe and what not to believe, because it's far too busy bringing to life a story where faith comes alive in every moment through the joys and sorrows, the successes and failures and in every moment in between.
Where Hope Grows centers around a former baseball player named Calvin Campbell (Kristoffer Polaha, Atlas Shrugged III: Who Is John Galt?), whose career with the Detroit Tigers ended because of his own panic attacks at the plate. Sent into early retirement, Calvin has instead become a shell of his former self drinking away his days while his teenage daughter Katie (McKaley Miller, Wish I Was Here) struggles to be the adult in the household while dealing with the not so affectionate affections of an obvious bad boy named Colt (Michael Grant). When Calvin strikes up an unlikely friendship with Produce (David DeSanctis), a young man with Down Syndrome who works at the local grocery store, he's awakened and inspired to stop feeling sorry for himself and start living into the life he's been given.
While much of the attention for Where Hope Grows has come from the decision to cast David DeSanctis, an actor with Down Syndrome, in the co-leading role of Produce, the truth is this shouldn't be getting all of the attention. As a film critic who is also paraplegic and an amputee, I'll be the first to applaud when actors with disabilities get the opportunity to show their stuff, but Where Hope Grows has far too much positive going on for it to be so lazily labeled.
It starts with the convincing performance of Kristoffer Polaha's winning performance as Calvin, embodying the former hometown hero with a convincing dark side yet enough positive traits that you can't help but be invested in his character's journey. Polaha manages to make Calvin equally believable as a washed up, downwardly spiraling alcoholic and as the kind of guy who would stop, look, and listen to a guy nicknamed Produce in the local grocery store whose presence seems to be an afterthought for many of those around him.
As Produce, so named because of his knowledge of and devotion to the produce section in the grocery store, David DeSanctis isn't just the recipient of some full-on gimmicky casting but brings to life his character with authenticity and quite a bit of spark. Hollywood has a tendency to ignore the abundance of available actors with disabilities available, preferring instead to throw out Oscar baity performances by well knowns that certainly carry a dramatic impact yet are often woefully lacking in authenticity. Where Hope Grows fosters authenticity without compromising quality with the spot-on casting of DeSanctis, whose character is tasked with far more than simply being that cute young man with Down Syndrome as too often happens in these types of films.
This is not to say that Where Hope Grows is a flawless film - it's not. The film's final third does dip a little too heavily into the melodrama and I'd be willing to argue that a relatively minor plotline involving one of Calvin's drinking buddies is simply unnecessary and distracts from everything else that's going on. I also found myself a little too distracted at times by the whole Katie/Colt relationship, and I use the word relationship lightly, because there's such a pervading sense of menace in these scenes that there's times it distracts from the film's overall arc. That said, I admire Dowling's willingness to infuse the film with stark realism and subject matter that is very seldom dealt with realistically in a faith-based film.
Dowling's supporting players are equally strong with particularly noteworthy performances turned in by McKaley Miller, who managed to turn the stereotypical jailhouse "I'm embarrassed by you" speech into an effective call to responsibility, and Brooke Burns as Amy, a fellow AA member with whom Calvin begins to feel a spark. Michael Grant is disturbingly effective as Colt, whose future as a sociopath seems most assured.
Where Hope Grows is the kind of film that may not please all the film critics and, sadly, will also likely not please all fans of faith-based or faith inspired cinema because it dares to talk about subjects that aren't always addressed in such films and dares to do so without the usual paint-by-numbers resolutions that too often ignore the fact that sometimes life just plain sucks. However, for those seeking a film that will inspire thoughts, feelings, and actions, Where Hope Grows is the kind of film we truly need to support. For those who'd like to see more actors with disabilities employed, acknowledging that the film occasionally dips into stereotypes even as it repels them, Where Hope Grows is a positive step forward and one that needs our support.
Opening in limited nationwide release on May 15th, Where Hope Grows is rated PG-13 and would likely not be appropriate for families with children younger than the teens due to its realistic handling of teenage relationships/sexuality and addictions issues.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic