The genre of faith-based films has grown stronger over the last ten years, but Father Stu pushes the envelope in one significant sense. Will the built-in audience for such films stand for an R-rated biopic? And will the warts-and-all depiction of the late Father Stuart Long bring in the crossover audiences that Mark Wahlberg commands?
Hopefully, the answer to both questions will be yes, as Father Stu offers a moving and sometimes challenging look at faith, redemption, and family. No one gets spared from a harsh, critical look at Long’s life — not his family, his friends, his lifestyle, or even one fellow seminarian. If Father Stu wraps all that up a bit neatly and abruptly in the last act, the journey is still worth the effort.
In the first half especially, Father Stu feels more like a slice-of-life film about working-class Americans in tough times, recalling 1970s cinema more than the 1980s in which a good part of the film is set. Stu (Wahlberg) comes from a broken home, a very broken and dysfunctional home in which the death of his younger brother at an early age haunts everyone in the family. His father (Mel Gibson) was emotionally absent even for the short period in which he was physically present in Stu’s life. His mother (Jackie Weaver) is loving but somewhat ineffective as a parent, and Stu runs wild.
Between bar fights, arrests, a decent amateur boxing career cut short by injury, and a surprising-but-true brief flirtation with Hollywood, Stu looks nothing but lost. A chance encounter with an attractive girl brings him to a Catholic church. Stu is much more interested in a physical relationship than with his spiritual life, having only shown up to chase the girl — until he gets baptized and confirmed.
At this point, some of the grittiness dissipates and the film shifts more into familiar faith-based territory. The struggle shifts initially focuses on Stu’s difficulties in fitting into the seminary and then on his debilitating disease, a struggle which Wahlberg does an excellent job in portraying. This gives the final third a bit more of a predictable tone and somewhat more archetypal faith-cinema tensions as opposed to the more chaotic opening, but that doesn’t mean it’s not effective.
Since this is based on a true story (and apparently does a decent job of sticking to the history, for a Hollywood biopic), it’s tough to give “spoilers” in the usual sense. I’ll refrain from describing the events more fully, but suffice it to say that the story of Father Stu’s redemption is inspiring, and that’s even more true of his father. Wahlberg delivers a solid performance, but Mel Gibson reminds us just how powerful he can be as an actor. Gibson’s own struggles with scandal and redemption provide an intriguing context to his performance as Stu’s father Bill, and Gibson very nearly steals the show. The film is worth watching for Gibson alone.
But of course, Father Stu has a lot more to offer than just the performances, as good as they are. Stuart Long’s road to redemption from an R-rated life is the kind of story that faith-based cinema might have passed on early in their revival. It’s not a perfect film, but in a sense that’s part of the point of Father Stu. As he remarks in the film, sometimes you need a rough sinner to tell the story of redemption and the Gospels, and to speak to those who can’t yet see the hope that Christ brings. None of us are perfect, but we all have value — and Father Stu delivers that message well.
On the Hot Air scale, Father Stu gets a qualified 5:
- 5 – Full price ticket
- 4 – Matinee only
- 3 – Wait for Blu-Ray/DVD/PPV rental or purchase
- 2 – Watch it when it hits Netflix/cable
- 1 – Avoid at all costs
I put this as a “qualified” five because some people who would normally go to faith-genre films may be very put off by the language. I wasn’t, in part because it’s authentic to the characters, but some may. There isn’t any nudity but there is some discussion of non-marital sex, nothing that teens couldn’t handle, but the language and content may be too much for younger viewers. There are violent scenes as well, mainly from the boxing ring but also in a very realistic motorcycle accident.
Viewers who want more about the grittier side of redemption should also watch Inmate #1: The Rise of Danny Trejo. You can read my review of that documentary here. In short … it’s fantastic.