Neatly avoiding temptations toward mawkish excess, writer-director Chris Dowling hits a solid double with “Where Hope Grows,” his intelligently affecting faith-based drama about a fallen-from-grace baseball player who needs a shot at redemption, and a young grocery clerk who could use a best buddy while dealing with Down syndrome. The uplifting indie drama could draw respectable-sized flocks to megaplexes during limited theatrical release, and then swing for the fences while generating biz in home-screen platforms.
Early scenes briskly establish Calvin Campbell (Kristoffer Polaha, late of TV’s “Backstrom”) as a former high-school hero and Detroit Tigers slugger whose glory days were cut short by panic attacks at the plate. Some 15 years after returning home to Louisville, Ky., with his tail tucked between his legs, he spends much of his time drifting aimlessly through an alcoholic haze, providing amiable companionship for Milt (Billy Zabka), a longtime friend, while drawing scornful disapproval from Katie (McKaley Miller from TV’s “Heart of Dixie”), his 17-year-old daughter.
Initially, Calvin is at best slightly amused — and at worst mildly annoyed — during repeated encounters with Produce (David DeSanctis), an ingenuously ingratiating young man with Down syndrome who’s gainfully employed as a grocery store clerk. (The movie isn’t entirely clear whether Produce is his real name, or a nickname inspired by his job.) “You’re kinda like ‘Rain Man’ or something” is the best response the ex-baseballer can muster when Produce demonstrates his prodigious ability to recall stock numbers for fruits and vegetables.
It takes a while for Calvin to develop a personal interest in Produce, to the point of teaching him the rudiments of baseball. It takes a little longer for him to realize, after alienating both Milt and Katie, that Produce may be his last friend left in the whole wide world.
Dowling makes only a token effort to shoehorn into his scenario a subplot about Milt’s possibly unfaithful wife (Danica McKellar), even though this story element is intended to trigger a major third-act upheaval. On the other hand, Dowling is a tad too emphatic about signaling the stalkerish qualities of Colt (Michael Grant), Katie’s bad-boy boyfriend.
“Where Hope Grows” is most involving and compelling during scenes devoted primarily to the growing bond between Calvin and Produce. Polaha gives a meticulously and effectively understated performance, even as Calvin‘s alcoholism worsens from embarrassingly pathetic to borderline suicidal, suggesting that long-term self-loathing, not heavy drinking, really is what has pushed Calvin to the edge of physical and mental exhaustion.
Just as important, Polaha develops a potent chemistry with DeSanctis, a Kentucky native who makes an impressive screen debut without appearing at all handicapped by his own Down syndrome. It’s funny the first few times Polaha responds awkwardly to one of DeSanctis’ impulsive embraces. But it’s well-nigh heart-wrenching when Polaha illustrates Calvin’s despair by becoming a hugger himself. (It should be noted, however, that Dowling pointedly ignores a rather distracting plot hole until the final scenes, and then only partially patches it.)
“Where Hope Grows” clearly is on the side of the angels, but Dowling has too much respect for his characters, and his audience, to climax with some sort of melodramatic elevation of Calvin into the ranks of the born again. Fairly early in the proceedings, Produce is rendered as a devout churchgoer who takes his Bible with him almost everywhere. But Calvin at first comes across as someone who lost his religion a long time ago. And it takes more than his attraction to another churchgoer — Amy (Brooke Burns), who also plays a significant role in Calvin’s reformation — to quickly change that.
Like most if not all faith-based entertainments, “Where Hope Grows” embraces the idea that God works in mysterious ways. But it also insists that God helps only those who help themselves.
Tech values, including a soundtrack filled with pleasant tunes by Christian and secular recording artists, are first-rate across the board.