The Secrets of Jonathan Sperry (2008) - Can't Stop the Movies
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The Secrets of Jonathan Sperry (2008)

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Danny DISLIKEGrowing up, my Wednesday nights were spent in the old dusty Catholic school about a half a mile from my house. There I'd see a few kids I knew from my elementary school, and a few kids I did not. We'd have a story and a workbook and then have a teacher who was either grouchy and decrepit or young and frighteningly joyful. I was quiet and paid attention, and rarely called into question what I was being taught and why.

I grew up and out of deist beliefs as I realized that the church was advertising a message of peace and forgiveness while more ruthlessly enforcing its messages of bigotry, obfuscation, and manipulation. Particularly loathsome I've always found is the threat and reward system installed in the basic tenants; threatening people to do good or else.

But, hey, this is a movie review. You don't want to read about my lame beliefs when you can hear me deconstructing someone else's.

The Secrets of Jonathan Sperry is a G-rated happy-go-lucky film about three young boys who learn the beauty of the Bible. Brought to us by Rich Christiano (what a name!), he has been a producer of Christian films for over two decades, and has directed a fair share of them as well. This is his newest effort. Of course, we have to start with a disclaimer:

Well, I guess it's kind of funny that we couldn't find a real story about one person's faith inspiring others. But, whatever, let's give it the benefit of the doubt.

Anyway, we  open on a beautiful and pristine street corner on a sunny day.

Oh, those gleeful halcyon days of... 1970? So, does this film contain any mention of the invasion of Cambodia, the Beatles breaking up, Apollo 13, Kent State, the Cold War, or anything along the lines of that whole Vietnam debacle going on? Nah.

Everyone has clean and brand new clothes, the downtown buildings are all pristine, and even the lawns that the main character mows aren't even tall enough to be worth mowing. I guess there's even one black person thrown in. Token? Oh, maybe. And I'll save the deconstruction of the roles of women in this movie for the end.

Jansen Panettiere plays Dustin. Look at this kid.

Yeah, he looks like one of my ex-girlfriends too. What's really odd is his complete inability to close his lips over his huge front two teeth; the kid looks like he has DNA from a beaver for goodness sake. And if I was being mean in criticizing a 13-year-old's looks, you probably don't want to hear my take on his acting acumen. I'll just say 'an unending series of blank stares' and leave it at that.

He is best friends with these two dapper young men, possibly because all three share a startling lack of personality:

Mark is on the left. When we see his room, it's decorated with space memorabilia and filled with microscopes-- he likes science. The other, dopey kid is Albert. He at least likes sweets and generic old rock music, putting him roughly on the same depth grounds as Tum Tum in the old 3 Ninjas movies.

Dustin is in a dilemma; he has a crush on the cute waitress, Tanya, at the nearby restaurant they attend. He can't work up the nerve to ask her out, so he instead leaves her a note. Unfortunately, that note is swept up without a thought and Tanya departs on a long summer vacation. How will Dustin deal with the doubt that is engulfing his mind?

Well, there's one way. Dustin only has a mother, and she's more than happy to loan him out to any other nearby church member to do lawn work, and Dustin will blithely do anything he is told. While mowing a lawn, he finds himself propositioned by an old man by the name of Jonathan Sperry. He recognizes Sperry from church and agrees to mow the lawn for two dollars. Sperry, being the generous man he is, offers instead three and a glass of fresh squeezed lemonade.

Jonathan is also missing a wife, along with any other sort of children to do his lawn work for him. He promises Dustin further awards if he brings his friends and his Bible to the next time he visits.

I should probably get the pedophilia joke out of the way now: THIS IS CREEPY. Setting it in 1970 as to make it 'a more wholesome time' (a year after the Manson family murders) does not make Jonathan Sperry's empty smile any less worrisome. The movie wisely doesn't actually bring any of this up, as it's a G-rated romp through magic land, but for any adults watching, it might leave you feeling a bit uncomfortable. Scratch that, it should make you feel uncomfortable.

However, Dustin, demonstrating the mental capacity of a dead beaver, readily agrees, and soon him and his dopey pals are learning Mr. Sperry's priceless advice on the beauty of the good book.

This starts with a rather painful lesson in how absolutely right Christianity is. He gives each boys the task to find  a slip of paper somewhere in the neighborhood, and then obey it's instructions to get some cake. One boy gets the instructions and gets some cake, another gets the instructions and they were wrong, and another finds no instructions at all. Why is Mr. Sperry being a jackass? To prove a point: you only get cake if you believe in Jesus.

And then, out of pity, he gives the other two kids cake any way. Is this a sign telling us we should be compassionate towards others? Nah, just convert them or they get no cake.

This is made more literal in their next Bible meeting, where Sperry takes them to a graveyard. He insists that they put their ears to the gravestones, and he intones in a ghostly voice, "Why, why didn't you tell me I needed the Lord to go to heaven?" Well, that's not very fair to the dead guy, who knows what his religious beliefs were. Regardless, Sperry continues, "Someday, every person will die. They will either go to heaven, or, sadly, they will go to hell."

This is put to the literal test when it comes to three different people. First is Nick. He's the school bully, though this guy, in all honesty, is about the level of threatening that you would assign to Liberace. He's the jackass who kicks you off the pinball machine or steals a piece of your pizza. Yeah, the jerk!

What made him this way? Well, that's one of the many secrets of Jonathan Sperry. You see, apparently Nick's dad became born again at some point and drove off his wife and their son. Why's that? Sperry passes it off as the wife's fault for not understanding... well, I'll get to that soon. He tells Nick that his dad was one with God and did a lot of good before he died (dead parents pile up in this movie faster than in any five Disney movies, Jesus) and so Nick realizes that he has to make peace with God and become a good kid.

Yay, telling him to listen to Jesus worked! He's a good kid now! He hangs out and helps our heroes get pizzas! Yay for being rewarded for indoctrination!

Next on old man Sperry's hit list is his neighbor, Benson. Benson is crotchety, and is dismayed that Dustin has started mowing his lawn without provocation. Sperry has secretly been paying Dustin to do it to teach him a lesson: doing things for other people will get them to read the Bible to try and figure out what your deal is, and, since the Bible is magic, they will automatically become Christians.

On a tangent, I'm amazed how often in Christian that reading the Bible is an automatic conversion to Christianity. Do these people simply believe the good Christians are the ones who believe everything they read, end of story? Are Christians then immediately warned away from any other book since they will instantly believe that all? Is all of Christian faith built against the idea of critical thinking?


Okay, back to Benson. By the end of the movie, he's converted to Christianity, and tells Dustin this in front of his mother. He leaves, and she starts breaking down, crying. Why? Because it turns out that Benson had accidentally killed Sperry's wife a few years earlier in a drunk driving accident.

Before I get too much further, just so we're absolutely clear, there is one black person in 1970, and he is a godless drunk murderer. Got it? Good.

It had taken Sperry three years to forgive Benson, and he shows him his forgiveness and the true light by sending a hapless beaver toothed youngin' to mow his lawn. Welp.

The last convert is Tanya, little Dustin's crush at the beginning of the summer. By the end of the summer, Sperry's Bible group has grown to a dozen boys, and Dustin's feelings have changed. He goes to drop off a note for the newly returned Tanya, and we get to hear her read the following:

Dear Tanya,

I think you're a very nice girl. I also think you're cool. I wanted you to know that something great has happened in my life.I started reading my bible every day and praying to the lord. I 'm coming to realize I need Jesus in my life especially if I want to go to heaven. So I just wanted to encourage you to start reading your Bible, and the gospel of John. I think it will help you too. Well, that's all for now.

Your friend,

P.S. I mowed lawns this summer, so if you don't have a Bible, I'll be happy to buy you one.

Tanya is obviously flattered by the note. At the end of the film we see little title cards, popping up with what happened to all of the characters, yearbook style. Nick helps troubled teens find God, Mark is a biology professor at a Christian college, Albert is a DJ and runs three Christian radio stations, Dustin is a priest, and Tanya... Well, six months after reading that note, she's a Christian too! Amazing!

Well, at least it ends on an up note. It's nice to see a story where a bunch of proselytized youth at least go on to do something with their lives, and all of them live happily--



Aw, come on!

Of course there's a happy ending for these kids, they've been saved. Even Tanya, who had maybe a dozen lines in the entire film, is saved by the magical Bible. Why?

Let me put one idea forward: because women are useless. There are two women characters in the movie, and one with a significant unseen role.

1. Tanya - She works at a diner at age fourteen, and instantly becomes converted when a beaver toothed young man tells her to. She has no personality or existence other than the need to be converted.

2. Dustin's Mother - As a single mother, she faces absolutely no hardships. She has an extremely nice home. She let's Dustin do whatever he wants but takes him to church every week. She is an idealized empty anomaly and, no offense to this actress, but she is practically as wooden as the house she inhabits.

3. Nick's Mother - We never get to see or meet her, but she's by far the most interesting character in the film. Leaving her husband in an age where the divorce rate was barely in the double digits is mystifying, especially if she was leaving him because he suddenly became a zealot for Christianity. And, unlike Dustin's mother, she supposedly has to work long, hard hours to support her and her son's way of life. Did Nick's father not support his family in the divorce, or is the movie telling us that you should be ashamed of non-believers and avoid supporting your family when inconvenient? What was Nick's father really like? Is he the whitewashed man of God that Sperry says he is? How would the mother deal with this old man converting her son into the religion she is fearful of?

Jesus, it's like Rashomon in here.

There are other signs in the movie that the existence of females is nothing next to the power of God: there are no women in the Bible study group. Sperry seems all-too-eager to forget the death of his wife. And Dustin, the only male exhibiting a healthy sexual curiosity, has this completely replaced by the blind worship of Jesus. He even becomes a priest by the end!

Okay, okay. So the movie hates women, and threatens young children into following Christ. The movie is still not as offensive as C Me Dance, but that's more because so few things truly are. Originally, I was going to rate this as Indifference. On the surface, there's nothing offensive here. There's no violence, no nudity, no swearing. If there was a MPAA rating below G, this would receive it with flying colors (Note to the MPAA: My suggestion for this imaginary rating would be 'Cardboard').

But if you show this to a child you know, for the love of God, talk to them about it. If you are Christian (which is the only conceivable way you would show this to your child), explain to them that hanging out with creepy old guys is slightly more dangerous than portrayed here. Tell them that believing in Jesus just because you get to go to Heaven if you do is not the only reason you should believe in Jesus. Tell them it's okay to be curious about girls, and that 1970 wasn't a magical era when all things were good and wonderful. And please, please don't show it to your daughter, young girls have enough of a fucked up world view from media, they don't need to be taught to be second class citizens in your horrible Christian movie either.

For the love of God.

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The Secrets of Jonathan Sperry (2008)

This film is available on DVD and Netflix Instant.

Trailer | IMDB
Directed by Rich Christiano
Written by Dave and Rich Christiano
Starring Gavin MacLeod, Jansen Panettiere, and Robert Guillaume

Posted by Danny

Comments (9) Trackbacks (0)
  1. I’m a Christian, but this movie was creepy! If an older man in my neighborhood treated my kids this way, I’d think he was a pedophile.

  2. Just wanted you to know that I LOVED your review. We kinda enjoyed the movie, even though surprised to find ourselves watching a “Christian” movie (we prefer everything from Ingmar Bergman to Red Cliff). It didn’t drag too much and the “Christian” messages were brief. I thought strong, white, middle class and working class Christian societies would probably enjoy it thoroughly.
    However, I found myself questioning the fairy tale early on and was chastising myself for the thoughts that ran through my mind as continued to watch-until I read your review. You addressed every single one of my thoughts and did so very entertainingly. You didn’t go too far with anything and I laughed myself silly. It was a brilliant piece and I am so glad I read it. Thanks for brightening the experience.

  3. Yes this is johnthan sperry i cant help i love being surrounded by little boys i cant help myself im sick fucking whack job who bible thumps little boys

  4. All I can say is that I feel horrible for you and I pray the God will transform you, that he will take your unregenerate heart and make it follow after him. I pity you and feel very sorry for the fact that you have to pick on a good wholesome movie like this. God bless you

  5. First off, anyone who lived back in the era that this movie was in would know that kids would run off freely throughout the day. I socialized freely with the neighbors as well and just because a good christian man wants to share the gospel with kids before they get tainted with life’s sinful nature, doesn’t make him a pervert or pedophile and I think to criticize someone for that, shows a lack of character class and moral insight. Back then it was also boys who were the ones to worry about not girls, so for the show to have its main focus on the boys does not show any less respect for woman, but again a lack of thinking on your part for criticizing the movie. I hope no one takes your reviews serious as it has no weight or value and as far as I am concerned a waste of internet space. I to feel sorry for you mis-guided soul and pray one day you can look on life in a positive way as most Christians do. There is hope through Jesus.

  6. It was also boys who were the ones to worry about not girls, so for the show to have its main focus on the boys does not show any less respect. and feel very sorry for the fact that you have to pick on a good its one of thanks.

  7. This whole review has got to be one of the stupidest things I’ve seen, and is 5 minutes of my life I’ll never get back.
    Personally i liked the movie, and just because an old man hangs out with kids doesn’t mean he’s a pedophile.

    You said not to show this movie to your daughter, but my dad showed me, and it didn’t mess me up, like you said it would.
    I hope you find God soon, and stop making fun of the writers, actors, and God.

  8. Shared! I’m pretty sure a few friends would like to read this.

  9. The Bible tells us that the gospel is foolishness to those who do not understand it, but that it is the power of God to those who believe. It can and does change lives, and you cannot scoff at that, whatever you may think of the story line of this movie. God is the only one who CAN change people, and He does. I hope you find this to be true for yourself someday. He died and rose again to save you and give you a truly fulfilling life, and all you have to do is ask. Please, consider the spiritual state of your own life. That is the only thing worth spending this much energy on. I will be praying for you.

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