FATHER STU (Movie Review)

Mark Wahlberg makes his most personal film to date with FATHER STU, a faith-based drama based on a true story.

*** out of ****
Rated R
(for strong language throughout)
Released: April 12, 2022
Runtime: 124 minutes
Directed by: Rosalind Ross
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Mel Gibson, Jacki Weaver, Teresa Ruiz, Aaron Moten, Cody Fern, Carlos Leal, Malcolm McDowell

Struggle not only has a purpose; it’s actually a grace.

That counter-intuitive paradox is at the heart of Father Stu, a faith-based film about a foul-mouthed convert in this rags-to-righteousness real-life tale. R-rated profanity may be the most singular difference between this and most other Christian-themed movies that curb their content for Evangelical appeal, but it’s Mark Wahlberg who elevates Father Stu well above being a calculated, pious pander to a niche market.

Starring Wahlberg in the title role, Father Stu isn’t a subtle movie but it is a sincere one, and that makes the journey of this true (if conventionally told) story well worth it. The formula is familiar (complete with a requisite romance and paternal reconciliation) but the message transcends perfunctory inspiration. It’s uplifting, yes, but Father Stu legitimately challenges accepted notions of what’s fair, of what we’ve earned or what we “deserve” – not only regarding our good deeds but also, thankfully, our sins.

It’s a cinematic homily about how not getting what we want, desire or strive for can be the best thing for us. It can even be the Lord’s will, especially for those who serve a God that carried (and died on) a cross.

Based on the life of Stuart Long – a rough blue collar pugilist who would go on to become a Catholic priest while facing an unexpected crisis – Father Stu is also a showcase for Mark Wahlberg, its star and producer, not so much as an actor (although it’s his best performance in years) but rather, more broadly, as an artist.

This isn’t an Oscar-baiting biopic. For Wahlberg, this may very well be the first thing he’s done in which he specifically has something to say.

Indeed, Father Stu works (albeit in metaphoric parallel) as a story about Wahlberg himself and his own faith journey. This is personal for him, not a vanity project, and you feel that in every frame. Father Stu fuses Wahlberg’s charismatic persona with his burgeoning public expression of Catholic faith, one that has clearly humbled him.

Battered and beaten by the end of an amateur boxing career that went past its due-date, Long decided at midlife to reinvent himself as a Hollywood actor. His ambition led him to L.A. but, once there, God had other plans. Father Stu is the retelling of how Long went from vulgar, carefree agnostic to someone who relentlessly pursued God’s unexpected call on his life, one that he would heed canonically yet in his own unorthodox spirit.

Written and directed by first-time filmmaker Rosalind Ross (who’s been the life partner of co-star Mel Gibson for the past eight years), Father Stu leans into typical faith-genre beats and even a few cliches, but its gritty aesthetic provides a welcome veracity to a genre that can often feel too polished.

In addition, while the first fifty minutes leading up to what we’re all waiting for (i.e. Long’s dramatic life-shift) could’ve been trimmed by half, Ross’s narrative doesn’t feel indulgent or turgid.

Her cast has a lot to do with that, not only with Wahlberg as the compelling anchor but also Jacki Weaver and Mel Gibson as Long’s estranged parents (who each add comic relief and pathos in equal measure). An ensemble of no-names is strong in key roles, too, as is the welcome entry of Malcolm McDowell in the second hour.

And it’s in that second hour where Father Stu really begins to distinguish itself. Yes, it plays to the converted but it’s not a sermon; it’s a testimony. It gets at truths that are hard-earned rather than trite, too, which allows it to resonate for the agnostic even with its unapologetic Catholic / Christian religious worldview.

In other words, Father Stu speaks in the candid yet meek voice of the unique man that it honors.

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