*** out of ****
for some mature thematic elements, and language
Released: March 18, 2016
Runtime: 100 minutes
Director: Bob Nelson
Starring: Clive Owen, Jaeden Lieberher, Maria Bello, Tim Blake Nelson, Patton Oswalt, Robert Forster
Much like his Oscar-nominated screenplay for Nebraska, writer-turned-director Bob Nelson’s The Confirmation is a slice of small-town American life on the margins. Its comedy and drama are both low key, with a focus on character, relationships, and environment, all embellished with colorful supporting characters that pop in-and-out over the course of this father/son weekend, set against a backdrop of religion. Some of its plotting is strained but its observations are not, and its heart is sincere.
The film opens in front of a Catholic church, where two exes wait to complete the weekend handoff of their 8-year-old son Anthony (he’s inside, innocently fumbling through his first confession). The father, Walt (Clive Owen, Children Of Men), is a scruffy down-on-his-luck freelance builder with a drinking problem, and Bonnie (Maria Bello, Prisoners) has re-married “up” into a more stable relationship; even her and new-hubby Kyle’s getaway to a Catholic marriage retreat is a sign of health, not concern.
Bonnie’s embrace of faith is a recent return to her roots, driving the awkward wedge between her and Walt even further. This also complicates how Walt relates to his son, which is already labored. With Anthony’s forthcoming confirmation near, Bonnie’s simple request of Walt is to keep their son out of trouble for two days.
This, of course, is a direct setup to the opposite happening. Yet what unfolds isn’t cavalier irresponsibility but, rather, Walt’s struggle to stay above water in desperate times. So while Catholicism and Jesus remain mostly on the periphery (albeit a consistent touchstone; I doubt it’s a coincidence that Walt is a carpenter), The Confirmation ends up being a catechism for father and son, as they learn to understand – and appreciate – each other.
The basic dynamic here isn’t so dissimilar from St. Vincent, the Bill Murray indie comedy that also co-starred the same young actor, Jaeden Lieberher. Yet where that film went for broader laughs and emotions, The Confirmation is more understated. Its line between comedy and drama is thin, even blurred, as writer/director Nelson keeps things grounded in a simple but pure authenticity, with a mostly light touch. It doesn’t get bogged down in gritty realism, instead looking at lower-class trials with an honest but empathetic (not melodramatic) eye.
The theft of Walt’s most vital woodworking tools (which also hold great personal value for him, as they’ve been handed down) creates a narrative construct that helps generate and weave together various moral and ethical compromises. The plot mechanics that propel this ongoing search for Walt’s tools (and their thief) are the film’s most clunky element, built on ever-increasing contrivances. But what they allow for are the film’s greatest strengths: conversations between father and son in which each express their doubts, questions, and fears. Walt begins to find his footing as a father, and Anthony begins to see him as one.
As respect between them grows and a bond forms, it leads naturally into making a connection through Walt’s most admirable virtue: being a builder. As Walt takes a simple but earned pride in showing Anthony some of his finest handiwork, and helping him see that care (like God) is found in the details, The Confirmation adds a societal commentary of how we’ve lost an appreciation for the blue collar people who’ve made our homes, our neighborhoods, and our communities. It’s a tender but effective lesson in what – and who – we as a nation have come to take for granted.
Yes, the plot meanders for awhile, but it’s held together by Owen and Lieberher as their characters navigate uncharted vulnerability. And while much of the narrative is a bit too loose for its own good, it’s a credit to the actors how well it all comes together in the last half-hour. The personal epiphanies and emotional payoffs are earned, and resonate.
The Confirmation isn’t a film that’s desperate to make its points, or land its sentiments, all to its credit. Its take on religion, too, is admirably tempered. The worldview here is unequivocally humanistic, but it holds to its agnosticism humbly, without disdain for the church, or faith. On the contrary, there’s a respect for the merit of religious tradition in people’s lives.
In total, the narrative and cinematic virtues of The Confirmation are rather modest. But to the film’s point, modesty is a value we’d do well to be grateful for again, especially in an age where it’s so easily and quickly dismissed.