Feeling like a cross between Stand by Me, Leave It To Beaver, and a 1960s Sunday School film strip lesson (yes, I'm dating myself... but that's probably appropriate), The Secrets of Jonathan Sperry is yet another preaching-to-the-choir, family-friendly program for the faithful... but then again, it isn't, either.
The major selling point of this evangelistically ambitious yet earnestly nostalgic film is Gavin McLeod, of Lou Grant and Love Boat fame, in the central role as Mr. Sperry. The story centers on a trio of young, late-1960s small-town pals who chase girls, pizza, and sodas but find something a little more worthwhile one summer thanks to the nurturing mentorship of the titular character.
While McLeod is good enough here for fans to feel good about having sat down to watch the film, the performance that really makes the film work (as a film) is Jansen Panettiere (Heroes Hayden Panettiere's little brother) as Dustin, the fatherless lawnmower pusher who's dying to ask out a local honey on his first twelve-year-old date. When Mr. Sperry recruits him to start caring for his lawn, however, Dustin's summer takes a detour into Bible study and selfless service.
Performance and Story Rings True
Yes, that's right. Instead of going in search of a dead body, Dustin and friends attend Bible studies at Mr. Sperry's house. Instead of confronting bullies with pistols, they learn to accept enemies as friends. Instead of the generically good-natured values that Beaver learned, Dustin gets instructed through Scripture and odd game-like parables. And in spite of the somewhat cheesy setting for the story, it all actually plays like a real film.
It's possible, though, that I'm biased toward Panettiere's performance as Dustin because he looks and acts much as I did around his age...in much the same time period. So it's not at all a stretch for me to buy into Dustin's world.
In fact, there's so much about Dustin's experience with Mr. Sperry which rings true that I have to admit, as much as many critics might not care to, that filmmakers Rich and Dave Christiano (and executive producer Paul Crouch, Jr.) have not made some ersatz nostalgic reflection on a rural-suburban America that never was. No, they have captured a one-time reality pretty accurately—if not compellingly so, from a narrative standpoint.
Feels Like Sunday School but Still Beneficial
The stated goal of the film is to present a fictional account which captures the inspiration which older men can be for those in their formative years. And while my own mentor, in my figuratively fatherless period, was no retiree like Jonathan Sperry, there's no mistaking that a great number of boys could certainly benefit from the lessons that the Sperrys of the world impart. Certainly, for Dustin, the summer yields a great deal of learning about spiritual and material priorities.
As sound as the film's details are, however, and as appealing as some of the central performances (and themes) may be, Secrets still has too much of the Sunday School film strip feel—too preachy, and too staged. And yet I imagine that this, too, is part of the intentional design, given that the Christianos were brought up in roughly the same period and environment as I.
As a matter of full disclosure, Past the Popcorn has a publication and hosting agreement with ChristianCinema.com, who has a close association with the Christiano brothers. So, even though I've never spoken with Rich or Dave—nor seen any of their films before—my editor has; and through her I've heard much about the company's history and legacy, and about the projects they've had in the pipeline.
A Film By Guys About Guys For Guys
Still, I don't think my very loose affiliation with the filmmakers (nor my recent, very extended interview with Producer Chad Gundersen) has resulted in a skewed, unjustifiably positive impression of the film. When it comes to recent, period-set films by Christian filmmakers that present a distinctly Christian world view, I greatly favor Jeb Stuart's Blood Done Sign My Name—or even Mark Frieburger's The Dog Days of Summer, which has much more in common with Secrets than Blood, yet feels much more artful and polished.
This may be no film to write home about, as the saying goes, and I chafe at the notion of art being "an evangelistic tool." But if this review makes you at all interested in seeing the film, I imagine you'll be quite pleased with what you find.
Unless you're female. Do be aware that this is film about guys made by guys for guys, based on their recollections of being younger guys. Women, or their sensibilities, don't significantly factor into the narrative whatsoever. When Mr. Sperry starts hosting Bible studies in home with a dozen or so boys, the film may even start reminding you of a Boy Scout promo—or something creepier, which says more about our contemporary values, in light of both recent religious and secular sexual abuse scandals, than the film itself.
The Secrets of Jonathan Sperry is rated PG for mild thematic elements. The thematic material here is nothing more serious than dating, routine death, and bullying are presented... though, of course, there's plenty of talk about Jesus and hell! Know your kids—but this is pretty mild.
Courtesy of a national publicist, Greg screened a promotional DVD of The Secrets of Jonathan Sperry.
Greg Wright is Managing Editor of both Past the Popcorn and Hollywood Jesus. An ordained pastor, Greg is the author of Tolkien In Perspective: Sifting the Gold from the Glitter (2003) and Peter Jackson in Perspective: The Power Behind Cinema’s The Lord of the Rings (2004). A widely-known lecturer on Tolkien, Lewis, film, and fantasy, Greg resides in the Seattle area with his precious wife Jenn and their two cats, Grynne and Bearrett.