In the last few years, actor Mark Wahlberg has quietly made a series of films that have low-key messages about the importance of family (Instant Family, Joe Bell), particularly in the development of kids who have felt like outsiders most of their lives. The messages are often lost in schmaltz or feel like some sort of make-good effort for past violent, homophobic or otherwise problematic behavior. But his latest work, Father Stu, feels like something a lot more personal to Wahlberg, who has been trying to tell the real-life story of Stuart Long (Wahlberg) for many years. Long’s story is not well known in the faith-based world (as I incorrectly presumed it was); it’s simply a story of a charming bad-boy who made the unlikeliest decision to become a priest without necessarily leaving behind all of his vices or beloved four-letter expressions.
In a somewhat gutsy move for a faith-based film, Father Stu is decidedly R-rated (mostly for language), which leads me to believe that Wahlberg wasn’t exclusively targeting the church-going hordes. Stu was an amateur boxer whose flailing career was cut short due to an injury. So he moved to Los Angeles to become an actor, or more specifically, a star. His own self-confidence gets in his way, and he ends up working as a supermarket clerk until his chance at the big-time comes around. While at that job, he meets Carmen (Teresa Ruiz), a Catholic Sunday school teacher who isn’t buying any of his lines, as hard as he turns on the charm. But he follows her to church and sits in on a mass, while keeping one eye on her. He pretends to be interested in the church-going life and starts attending regularly to win over Carmen.
Stu has a terrible motorcycle accident and begins to contemplate that his survival may have been the result of divine inspiration, and he shocks everyone, including the woman he loves and lusts after very much, by announcing that he’s going to go to seminary and use his persuasive ways to help others find their way. Part of his journey involves forgiving and mending fences with his mess of a mother (Jacki Weaver) and his estranged father (Mel Gibson, playing Wahlberg’s dad once again, after Daddy’s Home 2).
The truth is, I got pulled into Long’s journey, as self-possessed as he is for much of his life, and for as much as the people around him are kind of gross and unlikable. But once he gets to his priest training, I got pulled into the questions he was asking, the reasons for his decision to take this route, and the added burden he encountered when he was diagnosed with Inclusion Body Myositis (IBM), an incurable and rare autoimmune disease that the church wasn’t willing to make concessions for in order for him to finish his schooling. I’m not sure I found Father Stu inspirational in the way it wants us to, but it did move me to a degree. And Wahlberg is throwing himself into this role so much more than anything he’s been in lately. As an almost added bonus, the scenes between him and Gibson are solid as well, as Stu’s dad questions and mocks every decision his son makes…until he doesn’t.
The film was written and directed by Rosalind Ross (who just happens to be Gibson’s current life partner), and she finds a way into this story that is compelling, often funny, and unique enough that I was never quite sure where this journey was going to go. About the only thing I was sure of going in was that Long died in 2014, at the age of 50. But Father Stu gives us a road to redemption that is as bizarre as it is entertaining. And while I’m not at all a fan of being preached to, I don’t think that’s exactly what Wahlberg and company are going for. This work feels more like a cautionary tale about the bad places your life might take you if you don’t get with God at some point. Long lived a rough life even when things were going his way. There’s a sequence in which he and another priest-in-training are attempting to talk to prisoners, and the differences in their styles effectively sums up both the movie and Stu’s approach to teaching others to help themselves. This one took me by surprise, and gave me a revised outlook on what a passion project can look like.
The film is now playing theatrically.
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