A film review by Craig J. Koban June 30, 2022

FATHER STU jjj
 

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 Kelly 

Written 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. 

Future "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 GAMBLER.   

His co-stars in Weaver and Gibson deserve equal credit as Stuart's long suffering mother and father, with Weaver having an instant ability to class up any film she appears in and Gibson skillfully navigating his way through a toxically dislikeable man that goes through his own makeover process to become a better man and father when his son needs him the most.  There has been considerable critical chatter about how Wahlberg and Gibson - both deeply devout Catholics - have mutually embarked in this redemption drama despite both having, shall we say, very troublesome and ugly pasts with the law (with Gibson much more recently during his well publicized racist outbursts and well after he became a massive star).   Then there's Ross' inclusion as director here, who is Gibson's off-screen girlfriend, which obviously figured in to her getting hired in the first place.  Other distracting elements are apparent, like how FATHER STU sometimes has pacing issues and doesn't radically depart from genre conventions and biopic story mechanizations.  Having said that, it's hard for me to overlook this film's modest charms as a loser with a big heart that wins big in the end piece of entertainment.  FATHER STU is appealingly made (in a workmanlike manner, to be sure), delicately performed and, most importantly, serves as a decent heart-warming tribute to a man that battled more than his share of adversity and finally overcame it in his own unique manner. 

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