Beliefnet
Faith, Media & Culture

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

Where Hope Grows  hits the  DVD market today. The film, which is also available on digital HD, debuted in theaters last May when I recommended it.

Synopsis (from the film’s website): Calvin Campbell is a former professional baseball player sent to an early retirement due to his panic attacks at the plate. Even though he had all the talent for the big leagues, he struggles with the curveballs life has thrown him. Today, he mindlessly sleepwalks through his days and the challenge of raising his teenager daughter. His life is in a slow downward spiral when it is suddenly awakened and invigorated by the most unlikely person – Produce, a young-man with Down syndrome who works at the local grocery store.

Calvin slowly loses the chip on his shoulder as he begins to experience the world through Produce’s eyes. Faith, work, purpose and most importantly family, blossom into Calvin’s life as their friendship develops. The unlikely pair becomes intertwined giving Calvin’s life new meaning and purpose, but unfortunately leads to tragedy due to single decision echoed from Calvin’s past. Cast: Kristoffer Polaha, David DeSanctis, Billy Zabka, Brooke Burns, McKaley Miller, Alan Powell, Danica McKellar, Kerr Smith and Mitchell Grant. Written and Directed by: Chris Dowling

A conversation with WHG writer/director Chris Dowling and co-star Kris Polaha. Shortly after the film’s theatrical release, I had the opportunity to speak with David DeSanctis about his role as Produce, the young man living with Down Syndrome at the heart of the film. Now, as the movie moves into the DVD phase of its life, I spoke with writer/director Chris Dowling and Kris Polaha (Ringer) who played Calvin, the former pro baseball player given a new perspective on life by his relationship with Produce. We talked about the film, its meaning…and its potential as a TV series.

JWK: I guess my first question is was there a lot of problem with name confusion on the set when someone called out the name Chris/Kris?

CHRIS DOWLING: Even more confusing than that is we look very similar.

KRIS POLAHA: (laughs) It was the reason I got cast, I think.

CD: You’re a decent actor too. It’s funny though. Since we’ve been doing publicity and screenings, I will go down and do the Q&A sessions and talk about being a writer/director…and talk about working with Kris and then, without fail, I would (find) people waiting to take pictures with me because they think I’m him…In fact I was with (cast member) Brooke Burns’ family — I met her father for the first time — and the first thing he says is “You really look like Kris Polaha!”

JWK: Congratulations, by the way, on a very good film. So, what was the genesis of Where Hope grows? Where did the idea come from?

CD: The story is really a story that I had written a long time ago — actually like ten years ago. It was about a broken man who gets introduced to childlike faith as an adult and in his brokenness and how that slowly changes him…It took a long time. We had some startups and stops and, then ultimately,  we had some investors that got on board and really kind of caught the vision and were really into it.

Obviously, we had to have a person representing that childlike faith. We wanted it to be an individual who has Down syndrome (in the role of Produce) (but) not just a person who had Down syndrome. He had to be a natural actor…So, it came together in a pretty magical way.Kris is an old friend of mine. I say “old friend” because we hadn’t talked in a while (laughs) after he denied my Facebook request to be friends.

KP: (laughs) It was just an oversight.

CD: Anyway, I knew he could kill the character of Calvin. So, I was pitching these guys about him and it worked out.

JWK: What attracted you to the role?

KP: It was Chris Dowling’s script. It was such a beautiful story. That’s what was so great about it.

I feel like with entertainment, at a certain point, there’s already so many stories out there about scaring the pants off somebody or dinosaurs or star battles. We’ve already seen so many of those franchises established but there are so few treatments about the human heart and what it means to be somebody who has faith. And, also, so few treatments of people with disabilities…I read it and I was like “This is amazing! I would love to do this!

One of the other answers that I’ve been giving people is that I actually wrote a story (with a similar theme). My half brother was born with fetal alcohol syndrome. So, I had written a story about two brothers and (Where Hope Grows) just really reminded me of my script. I was never able to do anything with mine. I couldn’t get financing for it and I was never going to get it off the ground. When I read (Chris’ script) I was like “Well, here’s the story!” God was opening up the door for me to tell the story I want to tell in a way that I wouldn’t be able to tell it.

JWK: I gave the film a good review as did the general show business site Variety. It’s critic wrote that the film avoids the temptation to veer toward “mawkish excess,” which, of course, is what films like this are often accused of. Was that intentional — not crossing that line between genuinely touching that heart and coming off as preachy?

CD: Absolutely!…A lot of the faith-based films we have out there are kind of made to preach to the choir. A lot of Christian writers will write (about) the world in the way they wish it was instead of the way it really is…I wanted to do a film that I thought would appeal to people that have faith, people that are dipping their toe in faith (and) people that are not even open to the idea of faith yet. Ultimately, they can still see an inspirational story and go “You know, what? I like that. There’s something to that. Maybe there is something there.” It’s more of a conversation starter. We didn’t want to be preachy. We definitely didn’t want to have all the answers. The human condition is we don’t have all the answers.  We’re kind of in this thing together, trying to figure it out. So, I just wanted it be an introduction…and (to suggest) that a life can be changed by childlike faith.

KP: There is something extraordinary about people who have a disability like that to reach (into themselves) on a daily level that becomes supernatural. It opens the door for a bigger conversation. I thank all the pieces help tell this really cool story. It isn’t just a flat-out, smack-you-in-the-face story about Christianity. We’re talking about the human condition and what it means. There is this hole and everybody’s trying to fill it with some kind of thing. Some people fill it with drugs. Some people fill it with yoga. Some people fill it with different kinds of religion.  It opens up the door for a lot of great conversation.

JWK: How would you describe the faith journey of your character Calvin?

KP: He’s pretty much an alcoholic. Chris and I, we talked about it, and I said “You know, I kind of think we have a character where, as soon as his daughter turns 18, he’s going to drink himself to death.” There was this idea that he had tons of potential and huge promise in college playing baseball. He went to the Major Leagues and he failed out. He froze and ever since he’s been living in sort of the shadow of who he could have been. Someone wrote a review about it where he said “It’s not so much the drinking that you see. It’s the self loathing.” (That’s) sort of at the heart of this guy. He really doesn’t like himself. When he sees Produce (David DeSanctis), who life has handed this really unfair card with Down syndrome, he sees how joyful he is.

When you see this movie with different audiences, it’s amazing…(People with) Down syndrome love to see people like them on screen — and actually have responsibility in the movie…(It) gives them hope. They’re like “That was me up there!” I’m psyched to see that…Chris Dowling did such a great job directing it and writing the story. It just touches people. It’s one of those refreshing movies that I would urge every single one of your (readers) to watch at home — which is really the platform we’re counting on because it was a limited release. We were only out in (a few hundred) theaters but it still performed so beautifully…We stayed in theaters for four weeks.

JWK: So, as I mentioned, the film was received more warmly by critics than many films of this genre often are. What was the reaction you experienced among audience members?

CD: It’s really cool because (among) test audiences which were largely secular…we scored extremely high. We knew right then and there that we had something that was going to (appeal) to more than just the faith crowd or the special needs crowd. And, as it continued to play, we were probably at 20 to 30 screenings beforehand and…people were really moved by it…You see it even on our Facebook page…where there are almost 500,000 likes. People are liking it and they’re telling their friends about it. It’s really cool and it’s something I’m really proud of.

The reviews I really wanted to see were Variety and Hollywood Reporter. Both of those were extremely positive which is awesome.  In fact, they both said some pretty amazing things about the film and we got a lot of other good reviews. And we got some harsh ones — like the New York Times which said “Where Hope Grows has the potential to be a decent inspirational film until God shows up.” That’s the first line in their review. You know what, I get it.

JWK: There’s definitely a portion of the media that seems to have a negative reaction to almost anything that portrays faith in a positive way.

What was it like working with David DeSanctis?

KP: You know, the whole thing about acting is they ability to listen and respond…With so many professional actors, they’re so aware of the camera and what angle makes them look the prettiest or the most handsome — (but) with David it was just so pure. He was just there in the moment. He was present which forced me to just be there in the moment and be present and listen to him and respond to him…It just goes to show you that you either have it or you don’t. Working with him was such a treat. He brought such a purity to the whole experience.

CD: David had never acted before. This is his first professional gig. To come in and have so many pivotal scenes be on your shoulders with Polaha, there’s a lot you’re asking of somebody — and now you’re asking (it) of somebody that has Down syndrome. In my mind, I was like “Is he going to be able to pull this off?” I think we all kind of felt like that. Not only did he pull it off, he crushed it! It’s pretty phenomenal.

JWK: I know what you mean. He wasn’t just reading the lines. He really got and conveyed the emotion driving the lines.

CD: Right.

JWK: The film really works and the chemistry between David and Kris on screen is amazing. Have you ever thought of adapting the concept into an ongoing TV series?

CD: We have.

JWK: Any chance that will happen?

CD: I would love it. Kris and I have talked about something like that but it’s just such a hard thing to pull off. Yes, if there is anyone remotely interested pulling that off, I’m 100% into it. It would be awesome.

Note: For the record, I think the timing is spot on for such a show. I would certainly give it a look.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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