The reason I’m giving The Secrets of Jonathan Sperry a half-star rating is not because of its heavy-handed Christian message. Sure, the movie is about as subtle as being buried beneath an avalanche of Bibles, but this isn’t why the movie is bad. It’s the amateurish acting, the flat direction and the floundering lack of drama that makes this movie—and not its message—awful. Any topic would falter under this much slathered-on mediocrity.
The film is written by the Christiano brothers, Dave and Rich, who’ve carved out a niche for themselves making well-intentioned, quaint and dramatically inert Christian films, where the end message is that you’d better get right with the Lord or else. And that’s fine, but in this case, it isn’t a premise that needs to be stretched to feature length. The film’s whole purpose is to bring the masses closer to Jesus, but the movie is made and marketed in such a way that it’ll only be preached to the converted.
The movie takes place in a whitewashed version of 1970, which the filmmakers seem to have confused with the ‘50s. There are soda fountains and an abundance of pomade. The movie follows Dustin (Jansen Panettiere), a preteen dealing with a bully (Taylor Boggan) and trying to figure out how to put the PG-rated moves on his current crush (Bailey Garno). Not a whole lot happens with either of these things, except a whole lot of talking between Dustin and his two best buds (Frankie Ryan Manriquez and Allen Isaacson). In fact, most of the film is bogged down in conversational minutiae, from how to ask out girls to how much to leave for a tip. A lot of it feels like the ugly, incredibly dull lovechild of an episode of Seinfeld and Quentin Tarantino at his most pointlessly digressive. Maybe the worst of it is the feeling that the brothers Christiano think that what they’re writing is somehow clever. And it certainly doesn’t help that the film has all the style and production value of an instructional video.
Nevertheless, it’s not long until Dustin meets Jonathan Sperry (Gavin MacLeod, best known for The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Love Boat, and showing why he’s best known for those two shows), a bored, widowed senior citizen, who decides to take these young boys under his wing and teach them about Jesus. He does this through a mix of parables and scare tactics (leading to one scene set in a graveyard that’s both creepy and laughably ridiculous), and before you know it, Dustin’s getting everyone he knows to read their Bibles.
Ninety-six minutes of heavy-handed proselytizing—that’s pretty much the movie. And there’s probably a good level of sincerity in it all, too. But sincerity will only get you so far when the results are as yawn-inducing as this. Rated PG for mild thematic elements.