- Run Time
- 2 hours and 4 minutes
VP Content Ratings
- Sex & Nudity
- Star Rating
Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my help and my God.
We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.
Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for powers made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. 10 Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.
Mark Wahlberg’s new movie, Father Stu, is an R-rated, faith-based movie that tells the story of a real life priest named Father Stuart Long. The actor/producer (he used millions of his own money) is taking a chance, because many fans of faith-based film will never attend an R-rated film. I know this from personal experience in several congregations—and, of course, a large portion of a film’s potential audience are unchurched and highly suspicious of any faith-based film. This is one that I hope will make it at the box office, with fans of the excellent actor attending out of curiosity.
Growing up in Montana with an abusive father and a loving but ineffectual mother (Bill and Kathleen, played respectfully by Mel Gibson and Jacki Weaver), Stuart became a Montana Golden Gloves heavyweight champ, but had to quit when his jaw wounds became infected. He tells his separated parents that he is going to L.A. to become an actor. With no connections, he takes a position behind the meat counter of a popular grocery on the assumption that Hollywood people have to eat, and so he will be able to connect with one of them.
Through intermittent flashbacks we see that Stuart is grieving both the death of his six-year-old brother years ago and his inability to please his alcoholic father. Stuart himself becomes addicted to alcohol, as well as his short fuse that gets him into bar fights. After being stopped by a cop one night, he is tagged with a DUI. In L.A., where his father has also settled, he even tries to steal his father’s truck at the construction site where the old man is working—he needs it to get to an audition, his own car having been impounded.
Stuart does pick up a role, but to his mother’s surprise when she sees him on TV, he is demonstrating a so-called miracle mop. Stuart does connect, eventually, with a lovely Latino customer who catches his eye. She rebuffs him, but he persists, following her to the Catholic church where she attends and teaches young children. Because of her he attends enquirer class and agrees to be baptized. (I am adding this scene to my list of “Baptism Scenes” because of its bizareness—he strips to the waist, with the priest pouring a large quantity of water over his head and shoulders—no sprinkling here!)
By now Carmen (Teresa Ruiz) has succumbed to his charms, the pair sharing meals with both their families. It looks like they are heading to the altar for a wedding, even though he is leading a double life by drinking and hanging out at bars. However, his life takes a U-turn one night at a bar when a bearded stranger tells him ““Life’s gonna give you a gut-full of reasons to be angry. You only need one to be grateful,” and then warns him not to drive his motorcycle. Rebuffing him, Stuart mounts his machine and speeds off. A car suddenly pulls out in front of him, the impact sending his body into the street like it was a guided missile. As medics hover over him, Stuart has a vision of the Virgin Mary comforting him.
When he wakes up in the hospital, he is a changed man, convinced that he is now called to be a priest. He meets Carmen at a restaurant where the girl expects him to propose marriage. She is shocked by his revelation that the sacrament he desires is not that of Matrimony but of Holy Orders, ordination to the priesthood. The next scene shows Carmen telling his mother, “Your son is about to make a huge mistake!” Kathleen, who had been skeptical of his earlier ambition to become an actor, is even more against her son’s decision this time—and so is his father Bill. The latter had fallen away from the church, even turning against God because of the death of his son.
Monsignor Kelly (Malcolm McDowell) is equally skeptical about Stuart’s priestly aspirations, but Stuart persists, finally convincing him to allow him to enroll in seminary. Two of his classmates he had met at his parish, Ham (Aaron Moten Jacob (Cody Fern). Jacob is also skeptical of the validity of the profane-mouthed Stuart’s calling, though in a scene set in a jail, he comes to realize that profanity, instead of a sin, might be a means of connecting with profane men. He is paired with Stuart to speak to a group of inmates, but feels uncomfortable when he begins to speak. A prisoner interrupts him, saying he doesn’t understand the big word in Jacob’s introduction. Stuart takes over, using the profanity of his boxing days to gain the inmate’s attention, and then urging him not to give up on himself.
Stuart seems to be making progress in his studies when he collapses while playing basketball. The doctor informs him he has the degenerative disease Inclusion Body Myositis, for which there is no cure. Monsignor Kelly delivers the bad news that the diocese cannot ordain him because of his condition. But that, surprisingly, is by no means the end of the blunt-speaking would-be priest’s battle!
Stuart Long ‘s transformation is inspiring, but so too is that of his alcoholic father Bill, powerfully portrayed by another real life bad guy, Mel Gibson (and not coincidentally I am sure, the romantic partner of director/writer Rosalind Ross). During his son’s debilitation—for a time Stu’s ordination had been denied because his body was so weakened that he could not hold up the bread and wine of the Mass—Bill’s harsh view of his son changes and he becomes a staunch supporter, cleaning up his act by attending AA meetings and even reconciling with ex-wife Kathleen. The scene in which he tells his fallen, despairing son to get up again from the floor is truly thrilling.
This unconventional faith-based film owes its existence to its star. Mark Wahlberg, whose past includes some allegedly scandalous remarks and conduct, learned from a dinner with a group of priests about Father Stu. He began working on the film project in 2016. In the final stages of his illness, Father Stu’s body became greatly swollen. So dedicated to the project, the star committed himself to a harsh discipline of gaining 30 lbs. by eating 11,000 calories a day and drinking glasses of olive oil.
The screenplay by director Rosalind Ross has been accused of being anti-Hollywood and even homophobic by its inclusion of a scene of him roughing up an agent who hits on him sexually and another one in which our hero stares disapprovingly at a trans woman leaving his hotel. For me an equally grievous fault is that the film spends far more time on Stu’s unsavory past, leaving scant time to show his brief but remarkable ministry—there is no mention of his teaching at a California high school or of his ministry with the Capuchin Friars in New York City, where he worked in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Nor of his studies at the Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio to study philosophy, resulting in his Masters Degree. There is a delightful shot of his ministry at the group home in Montana, but that is about it. Fortunately, the film does at the end include shots and photos of the real Father Bill, but this was not nearly enough.
For viewers interested in theology, the film offers an opportunity to discuss how the apostle Paul’s claim in the above Romans passage works out in a person’s life and how suffering can bring one closer to God. Also how the following claim of God working through human weakness plays out in life:
For consider your call, brethren; not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth; but God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong…” 1 Corinthians 1:26-27
Though I have reservations, I do recommend this as a film worth your time.
This review will be in the May issue of VP along with a set of questions for reflection and/or discussion. If you have found reviews on this site helpful, please consider purchasing a subscription or individual issue in The Store.