Directed by: Rosalind Ross
Distributed by: Columbia Pictures
Written by Patrick Hao
It’s easy to see what Mark Wahlberg sees in Father Stuart Long as a film subject. Like Wahlberg, Long comes from familiar blue-collar working-class roots, with a checkered past, marked by violence and profanity. Since then, Wahlberg has worked hard to reform his image into a family-friendly, work harder than anyone else, mogul/actor. And of course, Wahlberg is a devout Catholic, who has openly talked about wanting to produce more faith-based films like “Father Stu.”
“Father Stu” is not like the recent slew of faith-based films from perennial powerhouses in the market like Pure Flix or the films of the Erwin Brothers. Even in its choice of subject – Stuart Long was a drunkard and a boxer before he converted – “Father Stu” skirts the clean-cut Hallmark routine of those other films. Rather, “Father Stu” wants to be grungier. Writer-director Rosalind Ross took over the film from David O. Russell and Russell’s aesthetics are all over the film. Russell and Wahlberg were frequent collaborators including “The Fighter,” which might be where this film draws its biggest inspiration from.
With “Father Stu,” Wahlberg gets to be the most engaged he has been in a long while, with the character getting to exploit everything that makes Wahlberg great as a movie star. Wahlberg, with his short stature, puppy dog eyes, and tough New England exterior, has always been best as a low-status underdog. Someone to be underestimated. Stuart Long is an amateur unranked boxer, who decides to go to Hollywood to become an actor. That is the type of unearned confidence that is Wahlberg’s forte. This confidence brings him to a Catholic church when he tries to romantically pursue Carmen (Teresa Ruiz). He is no Catholic boy. His estranged father (Mel Gibson, who is Rosalind Ross’s partner since 2014) is a drunkard and left him and his mother after his brother died as a child. Stu’s mother (Jacki Weaver in the most “Jacki Weaver” role) is quick to bring down Stu’s self-confidence in an attempt to manage expectations.
When Stu gets into a motorcycle accident and miraculously survives, he believes that this meant that he was chosen for priesthood. As his mother says in the film, “Don’t you know once he [Stu] believes something, he goes all in.” Predictably, Stu’s blue-collar attitude receives pushback from skeptics like Monsignor Kelly (the always dependable Malcolm McDowell) and fellow student, Jacob (Cody Fern). But, his natural charisma and ability to relate to the common folk begins turning minds before Stu is inflicted with a muscle disease that will render him immobile.
Even with its tear-jerking melodramatic plotting, Ross directs with a workmanlike capability. With veteran actors abound, inherently filling in needed backstory with their personas, “Father Stu,” is generous in creating a sketched-out world. You know exactly who Gibson’s character is supposed to be because he is played by Mel Gibson. The same can be said with Weaver and McDowell. Smartly, Ross leans into those personas and does not stray far from the working class, everyman roots of its subject.
The only thing that makes “Father Stu ” similar to the other religiously-minded films of Pinnacle Peak Pictures (Pure Flix), is its lack of curiosity or interrogation of what happens to Stu. The accident sparks his interest in the priesthood, but there is never any exploration into his spiritual transformation. It just shallowly occurs. Nor does it ever explore what religion actually means to Stu. Are we only supposed to find inspiration in what he achieved from his ailment or that he could become a better man through religion? But, with that comes more questions. It is such an extreme transformation – from non-believer to priesthood – with such little interior change. There’s no difference between Stu in the first half and Stu in the second besides rhetoric and alcohol consumption.
But, “Father Stu,” might be the next evolutionary step for faith-based productions. The others have long been successful but their success and messaging seem to come with aesthetic sacrifices. “Father Stu,” is an extremely proficient film with A-listers who are bringing their A-game. Whether it will create many converts is a different story.
“Father Stu” Trailer
“Father Stu” is in wide theatrical release and on VOD.