This weekend at your local theater, there are two major films that will generate considerable interest from both casual and devoted moviegoers. There’s Pitch Perfect 2, a musical comedy certain to attract a younger audience. There’s also some film about a guy named Mad Max (you might have heard about it here on ScreenFish) that takes place in a bleak desert landscape evocative of a Midnight Oil music video. There’s also a much quieter film called Where Hope Grows that features a baseball player and a grocery store worker with Down Syndrome. If your cinema is showing the latter, I highly recommend you give it a try before saying hello to either Anna Kendrick or Charlize Theron. You’ll walk out of the building a better person for it.
Where Hope Grows tells the story of Calvin Campbell (Kris Polaha, Backstrom), a baseball player who couldn’t quite make it at the big league level due to a case of the yips. As a result, he finds himself in a daze, simply trying to make it through each day while dealing with the responsibilities of singlehandedly raising his teenage daughter Katie (McKaley Miller, Hart of Dixie). To a large degree, Calvin fails at this task as he slowly spirals out of control, leaving Katie to take care of him instead.
There is a glimmer of hope in all of this, however. While at the grocery store one day, Calvin meets a guy from the produce department who is actually named Produce (David DeSanctis). Produce has Down Syndrome, yet somehow knows the department like the back of his hand, rattling off identification code after identification code to Calvin before giving him a bear hug. Calvin takes a liking to Produce and develops a friendship with him, even teaching him how to play baseball by having him hit fruits and vegetables in the alley. The challenge comes in the form of Colt (Michael Grant), a co-worker of Produce with an affinity for skirting the rules as he dates Katie (providing a relationship her father cannot). Calvin isn’t happy about this situation—and rightly so—but is powerless to do anything about it because he can’t break out of his tailspin. This leads to some significant drinking that his good friend Milt (Billy Zabka, The Karate Kid) only serves to exacerbate.
Yet Produce remains a significant figure for Calvin, even inviting him to church (which Calvin shrugs off immediately). He’s always made it a goal to be Employee of the Month at the grocery store, but is always overlooked due to his condition. This leads to a rather tense discussion between Calvin and the manager over fairness and not discriminating against someone because they’re different. The end result is exactly what you’d expect: Produce is passed over for the honor yet again.
Oh, you didn’t expect that? Then the latter half of the film will certainly provide you with some more surprises.
Calvin eventually has a prodigal son moment (see Luke 15:11-32) when, in a drunken stupor, Produce takes his car keys and runs away. He attempts to show up for an interview to be the manager of the local baseball team but arrives so late that the stadium is completely locked up. Dejected, he traipses through the evening to another baseball diamond and, in the pouring rain, discovers something about himself while attempting to hit balls. At this point, he begins his comeback by going to church—for an AA meeting where he meets Amy (Brooke Burns, Baywatch)
The climax of the film comes at a family fun center when Milt notices that his wife Susan (Danica McKellar, The Wonder Years) has, thanks to Milt’s lifestyle choices, plants a kiss on a friend whom the two have taken in at their house. Meanwhile, Cole decides to make his move on Katie in a scene that has scarred me forever from playing Laser Tag. This leads to a denouement that is somewhat predictable but nonetheless jarring. Can hope come out of all these messed-up lives? The answer is not an easy one.
Of course, one of the unique things about Where Hope Grows is DeSanctis himself. He plays the role of Produce with a freshness, vitality, and childlike exuberance often missing in Hollywood films these days. Yes, he has Down Syndrome, but a lesson to be learned here is that stereotypes are meant to be shattered—and I think some significant shattering will occur from this film. Polaha does a nice job as Calvin and has an extremely natural chemistry with DeSanctis (one he described as “instantaneous and organic”) that is evident in their scenes together. This is also the case with the father-daughter relationship he plays with Miller.
A second unique aspect of the film is the nature of how faith-based it is. Where Hope Grows does not attempt to bludgeon people with God, but allows the faith discussion to happen in a semi-organic manner. Produce reads his Bible and sings in the church choir. Susan reads a short passage from Matthew 6 at a critical juncture of the film. There is a scene where Calvin and Katie discuss prayer in a manner that is gripping and challenging all at once. Director Chris Dowling (The Remaining) said that “Faith films tend to write their world as they want to see it rather than what it is . . . [it’s supposed to be] a conversation starter.” To that end, I think he does a great job of making that happen.
This brings me to the third aspect of Where Hope Grows. Even though it could technically be considered a faith-based flick, I beg to differ. So did Miller, who in an interview I recently had with her, described it as the opposite of a “Hey, look at us; we’re a Christian film.” Although the overarching themes of respecting others, redemption, and making the most of every day are on full display, there’s a grittiness to the picture that will make people sit up and take notice. Calvin’s struggles with drinking are on full display, showcased by numerous bottles of liquor that he downs quite often. There’s an attempted rape scene and some violence. Does this sound like something that churches would probably endorse? However, if you go to the movie’s Facebook page, you’ll see that over 478,000 people have placed a like on it. That’s not a misprint. Instead, I see it as a fantastic step in the right direction where Christians and those not of faith can dialogue about issues common to both.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that the film is perfect (very few are). Some of the relationships aren’t explained as thoroughly as they could’ve been (as an example, Calvin and Katie never discuss the missing part of their family—Calvin’s inferred wife). The pacing was a tad slow in places and there’s a confrontation between Calvin and Milt that looks a bit hokey on screen. However, there are a lot of good things that will come out as a result of Where Hope Grows—thanks to a fellow named Produce and an insatiable desire to be a friend who sticks closer than a brother. It’s a film that will make you walk out of the theater with a renewed zest for life and a challenge to make every day a little bit better than the last.