A review by Mark Wahlberg’s father Stu

Mark Wahlberg plays the title character in director Rosalind Ross' Father Stu

Mark Wahlberg plays the title character in director Rosalind Ross’ Father Stu
Photo: Sony pictures

“Faith-based” is a film qualification that comes with a lot of baggage. Because this budding subgenre embraces what can be beneficially described as simplified storytelling, its contribution risks enticing critics to judge on a curve. On the other hand, the themes and inner convictions that these films explore encourage a certain rejection and group thinking that questions the critics’ supposed openness and their ability to meet these works where they exist.

Father Stu is the latest faith-based big-screen offering, but told with sensitivity, seriousness and no small amount of narrow, rogue charm, it is first and foremost a sure match of material and the strengths of a movie star. With Mark Wahlberg in the lead role as a boxer who became a priest, this drama based on a true story feels completely embodied, in part (but not exclusively) because of how skillfully it intervenes in the appeal of the working class. .

The story is centered on Stuart Long, an amateur boxer in Montana whose family is still alive, decades later, in the shadow of loss. His older brother’s death at just six years old tore the marriage between his parents Kathleen (Jacki Weaver) and Bill (Mel Gibson), leaving Stuart alienated from the latter. With the business prospects seemingly dry, Stuart impulsively moves to Hollywood, where his father now lives, with dreams of becoming an actor.

As religious believer Carmen (Teresa Ruiz) catches his eye, Stuart tracks her down at her church. Where he feels called to be a better man, he begins to withdraw from the audition circuit, talk less with his fists, and nurture his spirituality. After a dramatic motorcycle accident, he even decides to become a priest. Eventually, Stuart was diagnosed with an incurable, progressive degenerative muscle disease, inclusion body myositis, and he has to contend with what he sees as God’s plan for him, and its impact on those he loves.

Father Stu is not a cynical game about demographic market share. Once it lands its character in a place of surrender and acceptance, it is, fittingly, completely sincere about Stuart’s beliefs. However, it also unites its religiosity with a certain form of harsh individualism, where simple stubbornness is lionized as a trait and imbued with oversized virtue. This is, to be fair, a legitimate personality trait, consistent in everything from Stuart’s quest for seminary to his persistence in courting Carmen.

But this is where some may feel a little uncomfortable. This approach is so often misinterpreted and / or confused with an “own-bootstraps” mentality (by both creators and audiences). This, in turn, is used to justify a vision of Christianity, where everything from poverty to disease is something to be overcome personally, with the abdication of any shared social responsibility – or in fact, the chance to even improve their lives. outside our immediate family and friends. To be clear, this is not what Father Stu primarily selling. But it also does not explicitly reject this, leaving the film open to a flashing interpretation.

However, this concern is mitigated by both the craft of the film and its acting. Early on, Wahlberg (also a very practical producer on the project) pulls familiar handles of harsh, irreverent ambition. But the quality of his performance and the distinct charm of the film gradually become more apparent. They are most embossed in a few well-delivered sermons, the latter in which a sick, self-effacing Stuart praises the benefits of suffering as the ultimate chance to be close to Christ. Ruiz (Narcos: Mexico) also gives a very good turn, drawing deep feeling into a role that in far smaller hands could have been interpreted as a wan variation of the “good Catholic Latina” archetype.

In her feature film debut, author-director Rosalind Ross (Gibson’s real partner since 2014) delivers a sympathetic work with relaxed proselytizing. In particular, her script takes in character details with an airy economy; Stuart, who happily moves up to a small station in life, for example, gets caught in the montage of him cooking and then eating steak out of a frying pan in an unfurnished apartment.

Ross also makes two composite characters – in the fellows Ham (Aaron Moten) and Jacob (Cody Fern) – who serve to reflect the support and setback towards Stuart’s chosen path; each is nicely filled in, and especially Jacob gets a somewhat moving bow for himself. Most importantly, though, Ross knows his star’s voice quite well, creating scenes and dialogue that lean into his off-screen image as a straightforward Everyman who still carries considerable weight with him from a difficult teenage year.

Solid, non-flashy work from production designer David Meyer supports the film’s blue-collar sensibility. Meanwhile, a well-curated selection of songs from, among others, Glen Campbell, Loretta Lynn, Waylon Jennings and Conway Twitty Father Stu a further ingrained sense of character, though its score from composer Dickon Hinchliffe expresses gloom with all the aplomb of an anonymous, hastily grasped condolence card.

Finally, Father Stu does not necessarily locate or elevate any depths around religious belief. But it does not reach really hard and loud for them either. Instead, the film simply deals with telling the story of a man’s journey and its impact on those around him, his family and society. Distilled, it is a fairly well-sketched portrait of self-care – spiritual, yes, but also psychological and physical – and the external undulating effects of healing that can flow from the individual choice.

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