Rosalind Ross’s directorial debut Father Stu is based on the true story of Stuart Long. He was a struggling boxer from Montana forced to quit the fight game after suffering too many blows. He ultimately found religion and after many setbacks became an ordained Catholic priest. The conversion came much to the surprise and chagrin of his estranged parents – world weary, chain smoking Kathleen (Jacki Weaver) and embittered alcoholic Bill (Mel Gibson) – both of whom were atheists. And although his journey to Catholicism does manage to bring his parents back together, this is not as uplifting or as inspiring as the synopsis makes it seem.
After being forced to give up boxing Stu (Mark Wahlberg) heads off to Los Angeles hoping to find fame and fortune in the movie business, like so many hopefuls before him. The fact that he is in his thirties doesn’t seem to faze him. But he ends up barely eking out a living working in the deli section of a supermarket while auditioning for agents.
That is where he spies the beautiful Carmen (Theresa Ruiz), a devoutly Catholic Sunday school teacher and he sets out to woo her. This leads to him eventually attending church on a regular basis. But after a horrific motorcycle accident leaves him hospitalised Stu finds God and decides to become a priest. He encounter some opposition, not only from his skeptical parents but also from Jacob (Australian born actor Cody Fern), a fellow novitiate who is suspicious of him and his motives. But Stu finds an unexpected champion in the form of the local monsignor (Malcolm MacDowell).
And then Stu receives another blow when he is diagnosed with an incurable life-threatening and debilitating disease. When he is forced to move into an assisted care facility he holds confessions from within the facility.
Stu’s determination and resolve to overcome the many difficulties placed in his way provides the film with a strong focus, and Wahlberg gives a committed performance. He even put on the weight, gaining some 30 pounds to play the overweight and ill Stuart towards the end of his life.
Father Stu is a faith based film that would not be amiss on the Lifestyle channel. This is something of a passion project for Wahlberg, who bankrolled the film after several studios turned it down. Ross, who happens to be Gibson’s partner, writes and directs. But the film is tonally something of a mess as it deals with some big themes like toxic masculinity, redemption, dysfunctional families. Her direction is a bit prosaic.
For Wahlberg, the character fits into his wheelhouse of the angry young man, which doesn’t seem too far removed from his off-screen persona. This story seems to have a strong personal connection for all involved. Gibson, who played Wahlberg’s overly macho father in the comedy Daddy’s Home 2, is great here. He delivers a committed performance of rage and contempt that really digs into the character and it shows what he can do when given a a role that he can sink his teeth into. For Weaver this is the kind of role that she often plays in her Hollywood career and makes it seem effortless.
The soundtrack is heavily influenced by country rock, and features Glen Campbell and Johnny Cash amongst others.
Unfortunately, Father Stu seems to be preaching to the converted and is unlikely to have broad appeal.
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Greg King has had a life long love of films. He has been reviewing popular films for over 15 years. Since 1994, he has been the film reviewer for BEAT magazine. His reviews have also appeared in the Herald Sun newspaper, S-Press, Stage Whispers, and a number of other magazines, newspapers and web sites. Greg contributes to The Blurb on film