“Where Hope Grows” could have made its debut as a Lifetime or Hallmark Channel offering. It has the kind of emotional tension that Lifetime loves to put in their films. And, it’s loaded with the sentimentality that makes Hallmark movies so warm and fuzzy.
What elevates the movie is the solid performances by Kristoffer Polaha and David DeSanctis. Polaha brings the kind of gravitas that comes with a veteran actor taking on a familiar role, while newcomer DeSanctis makes up for his lack of training with an enthusiasm that is infectious.
Polaha plays Calvin Campbell, a high school baseball ace who earns a shot at the major leagues. When he crashes and burns, Campbell returns to his hometown where his struggles include dealing with a teen daughter and alcoholism.
His life changes when he meets Produce (DeSanctis), the caretaker of the fruit and vegetable section of the local market. He has not let his Down syndrome keep him from being a happy and competent employee. Campbell and Produce meet at a time when both could use a friend.
Five years ago, Polaha starred in the very good CW series “Life Unexpected,” where he played a man who had not lived up to anyone’s expectations. That existence gets shattered when he discovers he has a teenage daughter he never knew.
The actor has that series to use as a base for this film, especially in scenes with his daughter, Katie (McKaley Miller). The emotional disconnect the father and daughter have is a perfect spark to light the emotional fires that come as they try to figure out each other.
Too often, such parental problems get fixed with one heart-felt conversation. Polaha plays the role with enough self doubt and confusion that even when the pair seem to be finding their way, the past problems don’t disappear in a puff of hope. It’s obvious the series has given him a foundation to make this role much deeper than most.
Director/writer Chris Dowling uses this pair as a way to get across his faith-based story. He’s never heavy handed with his messages, choosing to let them play out in what feels like an organic relationship between two guys.
A lot of that comes from the performance by DeSanctis. It’s always a tightrope act when any character is dealing with something as big as Down syndrome. The performance works here because Dowling never treats the character as having a disability. Down syndrome is just part of the character — and actor’s — life.
“Where Hope Grows” is being marketed as a faith-based movie. If that’s critical for you, then that’s an important distinction to make. But just like the approach that Down syndrome doesn’t define Produce, the faith-based elements of “Where Hope Grows” don’t define this film.
The elements are there. No denying that. But, the film is more. It’s a complicated story about family, success, addiction and loss. Those are presented in a classy way by Polaha and DeSanctis.