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The Ultimate Gift

Although cynics likely will reject "The Ultimate Gift" as warmed-over Capra-corn, this predictable but pleasant drama based on Jim Stovall's popular novel may be prized by those with a taste for inspirational uplift and heart-tugging sentiment. It's being pitched to the same ticketbuyers targeted for "The Last Sin Eater," "Love's Abiding Joy" and similar Christian-themed fare marketed by Fox Faith. But "Gift" could break through to a slightly larger aud in theatrical release, if only because it soft-pedals its religious elements -- discussions of faith and God are fleeting, almost subliminal -- without stinting on the celebration of wholesome family values.

Cast:
Jason Stevens - Drew Fuller Red Stevens - James Garner Alexia - Ali Hillis Emily - Abigail Breslin Miss Hastings - Lee Meriwether Gus - Brian Dennehy Ted Hamilton - Bill Cobbs

Although cynics likely will reject “The Ultimate Gift” as warmed-over Capra-corn, this predictable but pleasant drama based on Jim Stovall’s popular novel may be prized by those with a taste for inspirational uplift and heart-tugging sentiment. It’s being pitched to the same ticketbuyers targeted for “The Last Sin Eater,” “Love’s Abiding Joy” and similar Christian-themed fare marketed by Fox Faith. But “Gift” could break through to a slightly larger aud in theatrical release, if only because it soft-pedals its religious elements — discussions of faith and God are fleeting, almost subliminal — without stinting on the celebration of wholesome family values.

Up-and-comer Drew Fuller (TV’s “Charmed”) stars as Jason Stevens, an improvident, trust-funded twentysomething who truly comes of age only after he partakes in a unique self-improvement program.

Long estranged from his fabulously wealthy grandfather, folksy tycoon Red Stevens (James Garner), Jason expects little in the way of an inheritance after the old guy dies. Much to his surprise, however, he finds he could get a much bigger payoff than Red’s other, greedier heirs. The catch is, Jason has to accept a series of challenges designed to provide a full syllabus of life lessons.

Under the stern eye of Red’s skeptical lawyer (Bill Cobbs), Jason reluctantly (and resentfully) begins a curriculum that involves grueling field-hand work for a Texas rancher (Brian Dennehy) and hardscrabble struggle as a homeless wretch after eviction from his posh apartment. Sporadically, the young man is “lectured” by Red, who videotaped a series of messages before his death. But even the most encouraging of these homespun homilies suggest that the tycoon was a tough-love taskmaster.

“Gift” nearly jumps the shark when advanced study leads Jason to the jungles of Ecuador, where he is kidnapped by bandits and threatened with execution. (At this point, some suspicious viewers might wonder whether scripter Cheryl McKay will cap her episodic scenario with a climax or two borrowed from David Fincher’s “The Game.”) But the melodrama is tamped down just in time for a shamelessly corny but surprisingly affecting plot development to have potent impact.

Capably directed by Michael O. Sajbel (who worked on a much larger scale last year as helmer of “One Night with the King”), “The Ultimate Gift” benefits a great deal from solid work by well-cast thesps. Fuller may be a shade too believable as a spoiled lout in early scenes, but he gradually generates sympathy as Jason grows and evolves under pressure. Garner and Dennehy inhabit their supporting roles with easygoing authority and sly humor.

As a feisty young leukemia patient who decides James would be a swell match for her single mom (Ali Hillis), Abigail Breslin demonstrates her range with a performance markedly different from her turn in “Little Miss Sunshine.” Cobbs and Lee Meriwether (as another of Red’s long-time employees) neatly balance each other as their characters dutifully chart Jason’s progress.

Filmed entirely on locales in North and South Carolina, the indie production has a professional polish comparable to that of far pricier pics.

The Ultimate Gift

Production: A Bigger Picture release of a Stanford Financial Group and Life N Media presentation of an Ultimate Gift production in association with Dean River Prods. Produced by Rick Eldridge, John Shepherd. Executive producers, Rick Eldridge, Dave Ross. Co-executive producers, Jim Van Eerden, Paul Brooks, Scott Fithian. Directed by Michael O. Sajbel. Screenplay, Cheryl McKay, based on the novel by Jim Stovall.

Crew: Camera (Deluxe color), Brian Baugh; editor, Scott Chestnut; music, Mark McKenzie, Anthony Short; production designer, Stephen Storer; art director, Linden Snyder; costume designer, Jane Anderson; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS), Steven R. Smith; assistant director, Randall Badger; casting, Beverly Holloway. Reviewed on DVD, Houston, March 4, 2007. MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 117 MIN.

With: Jason Stevens - Drew Fuller Red Stevens - James Garner Alexia - Ali Hillis Emily - Abigail Breslin Miss Hastings - Lee Meriwether Gus - Brian Dennehy Ted Hamilton - Bill Cobbs

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