Thursday, April 28, 2022

Film Review: Father Stu


Sexuality/Nudity Mature
Violence Acceptable
Vulgarity Mature

Anti-Catholic Philosophy No Objection

This is not a family movie, but it is a very powerful Catholic movie.

Father Stu tells true story of Stuart Long (Mark Wahlberg), a failed boxer, struggling actor, and generally a charming lothario.  He traumatized by the death of his young brother and his strained relationship with his estranged father Bill (Mel Gibson) and his cloying mother Kathleen (Jacki Weaver).  While in Hollywood trying to make it big, he falls in love with a Catholic girl named Carmen (Teresa Ruiz).  When she stipulates that she cannot date someone who isn't baptized, Stuart goes through the motions of become a Catholic.  All of this is done only so he can jump through the requisite hoops in order to become physically intimate with Carmen.  However, Stuart gets into a traumatic accident but miraculously survives.  He attributes his life to God's intervention and decides to become a priest.

I remember back in college I started writing a script about a priest and a teenage girl have a all-day conversation about faith.  Looking back on it, I did not have the required skill to make the story work.  But I do remember including a great deal of vulgarity in it.  At the time, I felt that most Christian movies were so sanitized that it bleached out the stains of real life.  What was left was something that didn't speak to many people's lived experiences.

I bring this up because this movie made me think of that abandoned script.  It is incredibly vulgar.  Not only are there F-bombs that fly all over the place, but there is a lot of frank sexual talk.  And especially early on in the movie there a great deal of casual blasphemy.  At one point, a drunken Stuart punches a statue of Christ.

This is not necessarily a bad thing, though I think children should be cautioned from seeing this.  In fact, this is part of what makes this movie work so well.  It doesn't flinch away from this aspect of Stuart's life (although I've heard that in real life he was not nearly as vulgar, but I'm getting that third hand).  There is a scene later in the movie where Stuart and another seminarian Jacob (Cody Fern) go to speak men in a prison.  Being unfamiliar with this world, Jacob stumbles and stutters.  The convicts mock and dismiss him.  But Stuart talks to them as someone who has spent some time behind bars, who has lived a rough and tumble life.  He brings with him a sense of authenticity and believability.

The script by writer/director Rosalind Ross does two things very well and two things not so well.

First, the story does something I have seen so few Christian movies do: it shows that conversion is not sanctification.  As my friend the Doctor reminded me, many of our Protestant brothers and sisters sees justification and sanctification as simultaneous once you accept Jesus.  But the story of Stuart shows how that is often not the case.  Stuart has a life-changing conversion, but he still has a long way to go.  You can see him work out his bullying and violent tendencies even in the seminary.  Conversion is where you turn your life to move in a new direction.  But getting to the destination of Christ is the journey of sanctification.  And Stuart is thrown for a loop when that journey involves an indescribable amount of suffering.


Even though this was revealed in the trailer, Stuart develops a muscular disease similar to ALS.  This breaks him down until there is almost nothing left.  Just when he was getting his life together God lays on him this heavy cross.  He doesn't understand why he has to go from someone so incredibly able to someone who cannot even go to the bathroom by himself.  But in there is part of the glory.  Throughout the movie, Stuart keeps saying that if he works hard enough he can accomplish anything, whether it is an acting career or becoming a priest.  But as his physical strength wanes, he learns he has to surrender to God and to the aid of others.  This humiliation leads to some beautiful humility)


The second thing the script does well is that all of the characters have three dimensions.  Carmen is devout, but she is also fallible and will give in to sin.  The head of the seminary Monsignor Kelly (Malcolm McDowell) could have been a one-note bureaucrat.  Instead, we see all the contradictory feelings he has about Stuart play out in a very sympathetic way.  Stuart too is no simply a villain turned hero.  All throughout there is light and dark fighting for dominance in him.

The script struggles when it falls into the trap that a lot of biopics do.  There is a pressure to hit important elements of Stuart's life so it all sometimes feels like it is shoe-horned into a two-hour story structure.  So things like the actual movement to conversion are covered in an awkward montage rather than in the time that it needs to be fleshed out.  The second issue is that very often Stuart's post-conversion dialogue feels a little cliché.  He breaks out this little spiritual zingers, but feel a bit artificial and not organic.

The performances are phenomenal, some of the best I've seen all year.  This is Wahlberg's best performance, hands down.  He is own of the few actors that can go effortlessly between comedy and drama, and that is no small feat.  He takes you on a complete journey of Stuart's interior life and everything is completely believable.  He does an amazing job of making Stuart relatable without turning him into saintly statue, too distant to understand.  Wahlberg shows some great emotional range, which would be over-the-top in some places, but he makes it work and feel honest.  

This is also the best Gibson performance I have seen in a long time.  It was so powerful to see his character's rough, atheistic persona slowly melt away in the presence of his son's faith.  The same can be said of Weaver's performance as she constantly tries to "unbrainwash" her son from the Catholic faith.  Ruiz also shines.  You can absolutely believe a man would change religions for her, but she does not idealize her or make her impossibly inhuman.  

Ross does a very good job of directing, giving a strong visual sense of the different stages of Stuart's life.  While nothing is sanitized, there is a rough beauty to everything

(My only strong objection is that there is a scene where Stuart as a seminarian playfully touches a woman's bottom as a joke.  Even though it is played for laughs it bothered me a bit to see him behave immodestly)

Finishing the movie I was struck by what a gift the priesthood is and how our priests give their lives away for us.  They are called to model Christ, especially in His suffering so that we can model ourselves after Christ too.  The movie reminded me in a beautiful way that no one is beyond redemption and that if we give ourselves over to God, He will not only transform our lives, but the lives of the people around us.

I highly recommend this movie.

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