Director: Chris Dowling
Starring: Kristoffer Polaha, David DeSanctis, McKaley Miller
There’s a fine line between ‘Hallmark’ and ‘Lifetime’ when it comes to calling a movie cheesy. Hallmark Channel originals are sappy beyond belief, full of heartwarming melodrama, focused on the family and its coming together to solve life’s problems. So calling a film ‘Hallmark’ doesn’t necessarily mean it’s terrible, it’s just a warning that you should probably watch it with your mom and be prepared for her to cry. Banner 4th of July was both a Hallmark original and a complete Hallmark-ian cheese ball; watch it if you believe that country music can save the soul. Now, Lifetime movies have a little more of an edge, deal with grittier issues, still focus on love conquering all, but are willing to get a little darker before light is shed on whatever the issue happens to be. The Song is a Lifetime-esque film, with a troubling premise, a religious backdrop, and family rising up when its support is needed most. Where Hope Grows is a bit more Lifetime than it is Hallmark, delivering a cheesy message but in a way that can be uncomfortably realistic at times, ultimately becoming a film that you can’t help but like.
Calvin Campbell is a washed up baseball player who can’t seem to move past his unrealized dreams. He was the pride of his Kentucky town, an All-American in high school, set records, hit home runs, and seemed poised for a great professional career. But his time in the big leagues didn’t go as planned, he couldn’t perform under pressure, and his brief utopia disappeared. Now, Calvin might be a local celebrity, but he’s also a bit of a joke, the guy who gets free drinks but really isn’t much of anything to aspire to. And speaking of drinks, Calvin too often finds himself guzzling his problems away, driving home drunk, and missing planned events with his teenage daughter Katie. She’s becoming a woman, dating the wrong guys, staying away from home more often, and giving up on a father who just isn’t happy enough to be the kind of role model she needs.
And then a hero comes along, or so the song says, and this hero’s name is Produce. Well, that’s actually his job title, as this young man who works at the local grocery store is an expert when it comes to fruits & vegetables. He has Down Syndrome, knows his customers by heart, gives out hugs to any who walk by, and aspires to someday be the Employee of the Month. Calvin befriends Produce at exactly the right time, a time when his life is going off the rails. Produce becomes a representation of all that is good, all that is kind, and a person who knows that love is the most important gift you can give. So as Calvin spirals downward, losing touch with Katie, drinking far too often, losing job opportunities, and holding too tightly to those lost dreams of years ago, Produce finds a place as his best friend, his conscience, and the person who loves him no matter what.
Of course it’s a little sappy; a man meets a kid with DS, they become unlikely friends, help each other through tough times, grow emotionally, learn to take life as it comes. It’s a cheesy premise, and worthy of the ‘Lifetime’ label, but that doesn’t make it bad. In fact, Where Hope Grows is a film that you’d have to be heartless to hate. The emotions are heavy, real, and honest, if a little bit piled on, making this film heartbreaking & heartwarming in a way that can’t be denied. There are lessons to learn, feels to feel, moments to cherish; cheap tricks that you fall for regardless. I’d challenge anyone to watch this without rooting for Produce, without hoping that it would all come out right in the end, without wishing that everyone could seen the world through the eyes of this special young man. Am I getting sappy in my old age? Perhaps. But I would bet that this imperfect film will affect many others the exact same way.
That said, you won’t be seeing this movie come Oscar time, and perhaps you wouldn’t even remember it a year after watching it. There’s not a wow factor here, just solid emotional pulls that work on a surface level. There’s a Christian element that’s subtly thrown in; not surprising since the director wrote The Remaining and Alan Powell from The Song makes an appearance. So does Winnie from The Wonder Years, oddly enough, delivering perhaps the weakest performance of the film, though thankfully it’s small. The rest of the cast pull of what is asked of them, no one member producing something remarkable, but all coming together to create strong-enough characters. The villains were perhaps the most impressive, extremely hateable men that you love to root against. Taken as a whole, Where Hope Grows is a feel-good film, not one that will amaze, but something that surprises with its ability to reach that empathetic side you perhaps didn’t know you had.
Video – With an aspect ratio of 2.40:1 (16×9 Widescreen), the video quality is good enough to be slightly better than made-for-TV films, without reaching the precision of your standard Hollywood hit. There’s a nice use of color here, without a phenomenal clarity, making a movie that is much more about watching the characters interact than it is watching the scenes shot. The picture quality is fine, unimpressive, and takes a backseat to the dialogue, but is also clear & balanced enough not to be a distraction.
Audio – The DVD was done in English 5.1 Dolby Digital, with an option for English or Spanish subtitles. There are no other language or audio choices. The sound quality of the film was acceptably unimportant, and honestly I can’t remember a single song or background piece, exemplifying the relative lack of focus on the music of the film. The dialogue was important, and that came across clearly , with conversations taking up a large bulk of the film.
Extras – There are many extras on the disc, including Audio Commentary with Write/Director Chris Dowling and David DeSanctis “Produce”. Casting David DeSanctis is a two-minute segment about choosing David for the role and the energy he brought to the character. Stop the R-Word is a one-minute long awareness-raising piece highlighting the need to eliminate the word “retard” from out collective vocabularies. Deleted Scenes, eight choices: Calvin’s Interview, Calvin and Produce’s Day at the Park, Katie Finds Calvin, Daddy-Daughter Day, Milton and Susan’s Confrontation, Baseball Toss, Calvin and Amy, Milton Confronts Frank, or play all. And lastly, Also from Lionsgate, five trailers: Love & Mercy, Words and Pictures, Draft Day, Grace Unplugged, Mr. Holmes.
Recommended. Where Hope Grows was originally titled Produce, which is a much less cheesy choice, and perhaps highlights the main character in a way that’s profoundly important. This film is about Calvin and his struggles, but it’s also about seeing a young man with intellectual disabilities as someone who has emotional abilities far outreaching those of the people around him. There are morals here, point to be made, facts to accept, tears to be shed perhaps, but all in the name of growth, something that not every film can offer. As a side note, this movie received five out of five doves from the Dove Foundation, which is a non-profit organization promoting family-friendly films. Had I known that, I would have been even more skeptical coming in than I already was. But perhaps the result would have been the same; a surprisingly touching film that gets you down deep even while not blowing you away with its quality. The video & audio were fine for the format, and there were some cool extras on the DVD, but the technical aspects of the movie won’t be what catches your attention. Watch with the genre in mind, otherwise you’ll most likely judge it too harshly and miss out on what this film has to offer.
☆ ☆ ☆ – Content
☆ ☆ ☆ – Video
☆ ☆ ☆ – Audio
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ – Extras
☆ ☆ ☆ – Replay