2022, PG-13, 124 mins.
Mark Wahlberg as Father Stuart 'Stu' Long / Mel Gibson as Bill Long / Jacki Weaver as Kathleen Long / Teresa Ruiz as Carmen / Malcolm McDowell as Monsignor KellyWritten and directed by Rosalind Ross
FATHER STU is a fact/faith-based drama that doesn't entirely adhere to the type of soft-pedaled and family friendly fare one might expect from the genre.
The film tells
the tale of Stuart Long, who was once a down on his luck and low level
boxer in the early 1990s that ultimately found his calling to become a man
of the cloth after a brutal accident nearly took his life.
Added on to this man's tragic backstory is the fact that he went on
to develop a rare progressive muscle disorder that would make performing
any physical duties as a Catholic priest increasingly difficult, if not
impossible. Mark Wahlberg -
who both produces and stars here, not to mention reportedly putting up
much of the funding for the film - plays Long in a deeply committed, warts
and all performance that might be one of the actor's better turns in
recent memory. That, and
FATHER STU is not a sugar-coated religious conversion drama at all, and
frequently earns its R rating in exploring the titular character's
decidedly rough personality. No
sizeable innovative ground is broken here as far as these types of
inspirational biopics go, but there's no denying that this film is
routinely well acted, sensitively drawn, and mostly earns its feel good
sentiment without coming off as annoyingly preachy.
"Father Stu" is introduced here in the early 90s and - like a
Rocky Balboa before him - is a fiercely determined pugilist that simply
can't catch a break in life...or his career.
He has spent years training to become a champion, but has barely
put his foot in the door, which is not aided by his noble minded, but
naive mother, Kathleen (Jackie Weaver) and his absentee-abusive father in
Bill (Mel Gibson), the latter of whom is the type of deadbeat dad that
couldn't be paid to give his offspring a compliment.
Realizing that being a boxer is doomed for more failure, Stuart
decides to pack up what little he has and ventures out to Hollywood to
become an actor (his obvious lack of formal training or talent doesn't
hold him back in the slightest). Like
his past profession, Stuart flounders as a working actor and is forced to
take a menial job at a grocery store to make ends meet.
Fate steps in one
day when he locks eyes with one of the local customers, Carmen (Teresa
Ruiz), who's an extremely passionate Catholic and tirelessly works with
her local church. Stuart is
instantly smitten with this woman, and despite not really having a
spiritual bone in his body, he decides to attend church services in an
attempt to get closer to her (yeah, these sections of the film are more
than a bit problematically creepy). She's
initially cold to Stuart's advances, but slowly gets to know him and
begins to see that he perhaps can become as devout as she is to her faith.
Just as things are progressing well for this new couple, tragedy
strikes Stuart when he becomes involved in a hellish motorcycle accident
that nearly kills him. His
brush with death has made him even closer to God, so close that he
decides - much to Carmen's and his parent's shock and dismay - to enter
the priesthood and do something worthy with what amount of time he has
left. Stuart dismisses their
outright concerns, seeing as he's tired of the bad hand that his life has
continuously dealt him, so he decides to solider on to become a priest,
with multiple obstacles getting in his way.
When poor Stuart develops body myositis (that will gradually rob
him of his mobility and ability to look after himself), he comes to
realize that this will be the single biggest challenge ever, but one that
he's hell bent on conquering.
I usually find
faith based films to be so blandly sanitized that getting engrossed in
their stories is almost impossible, yet FATHER STU is most certainly a
film for adults and contains a lot of vulgar language that makes it
anything but pedestrian. Wahlberg
has come out to defend these stylistic choices by saying that they were
crucial to contrasting Stuart's life before and during his priesthood, and
I'm inclined the agree with him. The opening sections of FATHER STU don't even feel like the
typical kind of religious film as advertised; Stuart's downtrodden boxing
days are rough and raw, and first time director Rosalind Ross does not shy
away from making her subject matter as blue as possible, which clearly
stays honest and true to the type of man he was before Catholicism became
his driving force. The core
relationship between Stuart and his dad is a corrosive one that sees both
coarse personalities failing to relinquish to the other when it comes to
some sort of family reconciliation (neither men are able to get over the
loss of one family member in the past, which serves as a mighty sore spot
that helps weaponize their hostility to one another).
FATHER STU is most assuredly not an all-ages affair, and it's
perhaps better for it in the way it finds a believably grounded approach
with these troubled souls.
The film also
makes frequent u-turns throughout as well to keep audiences immersed and
off-balance. What starts as a
boxing drama morphs into a romance drama that then further
segues into a religious yarn about a man that once tried to be a
boxer and then tried to find love that ultimately decided to abandon both
to become a priest...and he did the latter when everyone close to him
thought such a goal was crazily unreachable.
I found the latter sections showing Stuart's spiritual awakening to
be the most compelling, but not because they instantly smoothed over this
man's brittle edges. Stuart
has to fight even harder in seminary school than he ever did in the ring;
nearly all of his superiors in the church don't think that a failed punchy
boxer would makes for good priest material.
Some of the film's more memorable moments involve Stuart's clashes
with his local parish (played well by Malcolm McDowell), who doesn't think
that he has what he really takes to be a priest, but nevertheless admires
his overall gumption and his plain-spoken manner of cutting to the chase.
There's a telling scene in a prison when Stuart and one of his
colleagues are trying to convince convicts to embrace God.
Only Stuart is able to make a sizeable emotional bond and dent with
these hardened cons, mostly because he can relate to them on more concrete
levels that his stiff collared colleague.
One thing that
the ad campaigns for FATHER STU don't embellish is Stuart's descent into
body myositis, which ravages him on many levels, but manages to serve as a
bridging device between him and his cantankerous father, who seems to have
a new calling in his life in terms of coming to his son's aid on a daily
basis when it becomes clear that he simply can't look after himself
anymore. There's a pleasing
about-face that this film employs that allows for it to elevate itself
well above the types of expectations of its foul tongued boxer becomes
a priest gimmick-fuelled marketing. Wahlberg is the type of actor that has regularly flirted with
greatness in his role and film choices (see BOOGIE NIGHTS, THE
DEPARTED, or his other boxer themed drama THE
FIGHTER) while also allowing himself to wallow in many awful
paycheck grabbing parts (honestly, too many of those to mention here, but
recent ones like INFINITE, TRANSFORMERS:
THE LAST KNIGHT and SPENSER
CONFIDENTIAL come to mind). Wahlberg's
performance here is a commendably layered one in the sense that he has to
play three distinctively different characters in one film.
He starts off in FATHER STU as a tough talking hoodlum and then
migrates into a potential smooth talking romantic suitor for Carmen
(Teresa Ruiz's give and take with him is fantastic throughout) that then
shifts into his spiritual conversion and depressingly into the
degenerative disease that wastes Stuart away.
That's a tall order for any actor, and Wahlberg deserves credit for
not playing Stuart with one-note simplicity.
He certainly looks the part of a chiseled fighter in the early
stages, but then later transforms himself (through thirty pounds of weight
gain and some prosthetics) to authentically relay a man that has gone
through a horrible body transformation alongside his enlightened religious
conversion. We get to witness
Stuart's physical breakdown and his unwavering devotion to God in
equal measure, and Wahlberg commits himself to this task with steely eyed
poise; he hasn't been this commanding in a film since 2014's THE