Not all faith-based movies are created equal. That’s never been more true than today.
The newer crop of spiritual fare features bigger stars, richer themes and, in the case of “Father Stu,” material that might not be appropriate for the kiddoes.
Yes the R-rated drama has a potty mouth … with a purpose. The profanity isn’t exploitative, nor is it designed to reel in faith-wary crowds. It’s part of Father Stu’s life story, one vividly depicted in this smart, heart-wrenching biopic.
Mark Wahlberg stars as Stuart Long, an aging boxer who thinks he can show up in Hollywood one day and book a big movie role the next. He’s that delusional, but there’s something sweet lurking beneath his impractical exterior.
He loves his Ma (Jacki Weaver), and his wide-eyed innocence hides a bruised heart.
We see that as he flirts with Carmen (Teresa Ruiz), a Mexican beauty he spots one day in a supermarket. He doesn’t take her gentle rejections as her final answer, pushing for the chance to woo her wherever she may go. That steers Stu toward the Catholic Church, which he initially sees as another weapon in his charm offensive.
It takes an actor with a reservoir of good will to make that pursuit sweet, not sour.
The Catholic faith slowly embeds itself in Stu, convincing him to pursue the priesthood against all odds. It’s what happens next that shows the heart and humor of this wobbly soul in progress.
The less said about “Father Stu’s” third act, the better. Just know that we haven’t seen Mel Gibson, playing Stu’s crusty Pa, dialed in like this for quite some time. The story, based on the real Father Stu’s remarkable journey, traffics in material that could collapse into a maudlin finale.
Writer/director Rosalind Ross has other ideas.
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Ross, in a strong directorial debut, finesses the material without easy tics or emotional shortcuts. Every tear is earned, and none come without a cost. Wahlberg undergoes a physical transformation to bring Father Stu to the screen, but it’s his devotion to the character, and the priest’s uncommon grace, that puts him in the early Best Actor running.
Faith-based movies often struggle with the real world. Some excise so much of what we see and hear around us that they barely resemble reality.
That, in turn, chases away select audiences.
“Father Stu” offers something for a wider swath of America. It’s hard to imagine hearts hard enough to keep this tale at arm’s length.
HiT or Miss: “Father Stu” showcases Mark Wahlberg at his most compelling, and the layered screenplay makes sure not to waste that stellar work.