Judge Erich Asperschlager has a few secrets of his own.
What He Teaches Them…Will Last Forever.
It is impossible to write a review about someone else's faith. In fact, I'm pretty sure the Bible tells us not to do it—something about judging not lest ye be judged. It is much easier to critique a movie. Reviewing Rich Christiano's faith-based family film The Secrets of Jonathan Sperry requires talking about both. It would be easy to knock this film for problems with the writing, acting, and storytelling, but those aren't the things Christiano was worried about. For good and bad, this is a message movie, and that message is what Sperry's writer-director hopes the audience takes away from his movie.
Facts of the Case
Summer of 1970. In a small town in upstate New York, best friends Dustin (Jansen Panettiere, The X's), Albert (Frankie Ryan Manriquez, That's So Raven), and Mark (first-timer Allen Isaacson) are getting ready for long days of fishing, talking, and hanging out at the local diner where Dustin's crush, a girl named Tanya (Bailey Garno, The Alphabet Killer), works as a waitress. While mowing a neighbor's lawn, Dustin is approached by a kindly old man from his church, a widower named Jonathan Sperry (Gavin MacLeod, The Love Boat). Mr. Sperry asks Dustin to mow his lawn and afterwards gives him a glass of lemonade and offers to lead Dustin and his friends in a Bible study. Mr. Sperry also offers to pay Dustin if he will mow the lawn of an elderly neighbor named Mr. Barnes (Robert Guillaume, Benson), but not tell him he's the one paying for the service. As the summer progresses, Dustin continues to mow Mr. Barnes's lawn, and, along with his friends, grow closer to Christ with Mr. Sperry's help, which includes showing the boys how to reach a local bully with a troubled past.
Despite the promises of its title, The Secrets of Jonathan Sperry is a very straightforward movie. It tells the story of a Godly man who teaches three boys about the Bible, faith, and life, and gives them the confidence to share their experiences with others. Jonathan Sperry, as played by veteran actor Gavin MacLeod, is a kindly old Christian man who is just as nice as he seems, whose biggest "secret" is probably how he makes that world-famous lemonade of his. There is a late-movie revelation about his relationship with his neighbor, Mr. Barnes (played by fellow vet Robert Guillaume) that adds complexity to the character, but for the most part his life is wide open. The kids he teaches are just as transparent. Dustin, Albert, and Mark are the best of friends. They joke and pal around together, and never fight. Dustin's mom (the only adult besides Sperry and Barnes we see in the movie) is a good mom, a widow who works hard to instill traditional values in her obedient son.
These characters represent an idealized small town America that may or may not ever have existed in real life. It certainly doesn't anywhere in modern Hollywood. There is almost no conflict in the movie. What little there is comes from a bully named Nick who scares the other kids into relinquishing slices of pizza and taking over games of pinball. But as far as movie bullies go, Nick is about as scary as Ray Romano. Stand By Me this is not. That said, there's nothing wrong with a filmmaker choosing to make a simple movie with a positive message—especially when that message is so fiercely personal.
The Christian movie genre is tricky. Christiano is obviously passionate, as is everyone involved with the making of his movie. As a Christian myself, I want to support this movie. As a critic, however, I can't give it a free pass. There are just too many problems. Although Jonathan Sperry features actors like MacLeod and Guillaume, most of the acting weight is on its young cast. The gulf in acting experience is apparent. Although some performances are better than others, Sperry is plagued by wooden line deliveries that miss the emotional mark. The authenticity of the characters isn't helped by the screenplay, co-written with Christiano's brother Dave, which presents his message in a shallow story arc. Subplots about a teenage crush and a troublesome bully are resolved quickly and with little drama, there mostly to provide practical applications for the lessons Dustin and his friends learn from Mr. Sperry.
Those lessons are the heart of The Secrets of Jonathan Sperry, and the strong Christian message is where the rubber of this movie meets the gold-paved road. Jonathan Sperry is a Christian who is driven by a desire to share the Word of God. He leads a Bible study and engages the kids with parables that involve chocolate cake and ice cream. In one pivotal scene, he takes them to the cemetery to drive home the reality of death and the necessity of sharing their faith with other people while they have the chance. He puts that faith into action by turning the other cheek with a local bully, and that kindness leads the boy to Christ. It is a timeless message shared with the evangelical audience who will love this movie. Christiano's goal, however, isn't reaching the converted; it's doing what his character Jonathan Sperry does: share the Good News with non-believers.
Divine intervention aside, I'm not sure that Christiano has made a movie with the kind of crossover appeal he'd like it to have. A secular viewer probably won't be as willing to overlook amateur acting and conflict-free storytelling as a person who shares the movie's spiritual convictions. Whether the director wants it to or not, this movie will most likely be shown to Bible study groups, Sunday School classes, and on church movie nights to audiences that already agree with him. If the churches in question are doing their jobs, those audiences might include a few curious non-believers, but chances are Jonathan Sperry's inspirational message will be limited to the choir Christiano is preaching to.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Then again, maybe that's okay. There are plenty of Christians who could use a reminder to read their Bibles and tell the people they come in contact with about God's love. The parts of this movie that are beyond the scope of film criticism succeed because of their sincerity, conviction, and emotional power. This isn't a great film by any stretch, but it fills a void in modern movies that people who are tired of cynicism and violence will appreciate. The Secrets of Jonathan Sperry is an inspirational movie made for people who want to be inspired.
Rich Christiano's passion for this project is evident in this disc's unusually large collection of bonus features, both in quantity and in content. The longest feature is a commentary track for the film, recorded by the director and MacLeod. It is full of behind-the-scenes info, compliments for the rest of the cast and crew, and the real sense that this movie was a labor of love. That feeling carries over into a 40 minute making-of featurette. It is filled with interviews, heartfelt stories of faith, and on-set footage of things like the boys playing between takes, and the two biggest problems to plague the filming process: the unpredictable weather, and bees. Rounding out the extras are an introduction to the movie recorded by the director, featurettes that focus on the neighborhood in which the film was shot, and composer Jasper Randall's original score.
That original score is a good indication of how professionally produced this film is. Whatever accommodation viewers might have to make for the lightweight story and acting, they won't have to for the presentation. This widescreen, 5.1 surround movie looks and sounds great.
The Secrets of Jonathan Sperry will appeal to an audience, largely Christian, who want to see a movie that is uplifting and edifying. Those people will be happy with this film. At the very least, they will ignore the movie's flaws and latch onto its message, which is timeless and inspiring. Jonathan Sperry isn't perfect, but it is heartfelt and deserves to be celebrated as a true labor of love.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Phase 4 Films
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