Film Review: Where Hope Grows

It's good enough to make one hopeful about faith-based films.
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Considering how many mediocre examples have hit multiplexes in recent years, faith-based dramas have to be graded on a curve. On that basis, director/screenwriter's Chris Dowling's effort rates a solid B+. Although its characters and storyline border on cliché—well, actually, the border is crossed with impunity—Where Hope Grows is an affecting drama marked by solid performances and a refreshing restraint in the way it delivers its religious message.

The plot centers on the burgeoning friendship between Calvin (Kristoffer Polaha), a former pro baseball player whose career ended prematurely, and Produce (David DeSanctis), a young man with Down syndrome whose nickname stems from his job as grocery store clerk.

As with so many cinematic portrayals of former athletes, Calvin is a lost soul, a single father struggling to raise his 17-year-old daughter Katie (McKaley Miller), who's lost respect for him due to his heavy drinking and lack of interest in procuring gainful employment. She, meanwhile, is struggling to maintain her virginity despite the pressures of her aggressive boyfriend, Colt (Michael Grant), who's also Produce's co-worker.

After a chance encounter at the store, Calvin takes a shine to the endlessly enthusiastic young man who has a habit of spontaneously hugging the customers. He begins giving him baseball lessons, and is quick to rebuke anyone who refers to him as a "retard." He even implores Produce's boss to make him "employee of the month," to no avail.

It turns out that Produce is a devout churchgoer who carries a Bible with him at all times. At first this, like everything else, has little effect on Calvin. But when he misses an important job interview because of a bender, he begins to rethink his ways, even taking the important step of attending his first AA meeting, where he meets a prospective romantic interest (Brooke Burns).

Dowling's screenplay tends heavily towards the melodramatic, incorporating such plot elements as Calvin's best friend (Billy Zabka) discovering that his wife (Danica McKellar, all grown up from “The Wonder Years”) is possibly unfaithful and Produce intervening when Colt gets violent towards Katie by knocking him out with a fire extinguisher. And the final act, concerning a drunk-driving accident involving two of the principal characters, culminates in an ending both hokey and manipulative.

But in its subtler moments, especially those depicting the growing friendship between Calvin and the young man who proves to be his salvation, the film is quietly affecting. Polaha handles his stereotypical role with admirable understatement, effectively letting us see Calvin's underlying decency, and DeSanctis, in his first screen role, is relaxedly appealing.

Handling its theme of spiritual redemption without the overt proselytizing all too endemic to its genre, Where Hope Grows thankfully avoids feeling like a cinematic sermon.--The Hollywood Reporter

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