“Father Stu” nails the faith-based formula better than maybe any other faith-based film. But it remains to be seen if audiences will come out to see a faith-based film with so much cussing — or where the hero leaves the girl to pursue God.
The movie tells the true story of Stuart Long (Mark Wahlberg) — an immature, self-centered boxer-turned-aspiring actor with an estranged father (Mel Gibson) and dysfunctional mother — who has a religious experience and decides to become a Catholic priest against the wishes of his family, his girlfriend and eventually the church itself before becoming an inspiration to many.
“Father Stu” is a passion project for Wahlberg, an openly devout Catholic. He has described to America Magazine the movie as “the most important movie (he’s) ever done and … the best movie (he’s) ever been a part of.” He put a lot of his own money into the film to make it a reality, calling it to Religion News his “love letter to God” and part of the next phase of his career, in which he’s going to focus on faith-based films and films that do good in the world.
Wahlberg explained to America Magazine, “I’ve always been like, OK, as soon as I get to a certain place, and I have a certain voice and reach and platform, then I’ll start doing more things that will move the needle in terms of my faith, and things that I think could be productive, helpful and in service. So when this project came to me, I was like, ‘You know what? I need to go make this.’”
Wahlberg was inspired by Father Stu’s life — how after a sinful life, he found redemption in faith in Christ and spent the rest of his life showing to others the grace that God had shown him. He got a screenplay from actress and screenwriter Rosalind Ross — girlfriend of Wahlberg’s friend Mel Gibson — and was so impressed with it that he made her the director.
“We wanted to make a movie that was edgy and real and relatable to everybody,” Wahlberg continued “And Stu was one of those guys that when he did his prison ministries, it was where he was most effective because he could speak with (prisoners) on their level, and he understood that he was one of them and that he had been in those seats. And now he was on the other side, and he was reminding them that God’s not going to give up on you, and neither is he.”
Although “Father Stu” is being touted as a faith-based film, Wahlberg is clear in his remarks to Screen Rant that this is a different kind of faith-based film.
“I mean, it’s a rated-R film,” he said. “It’s got language, it’s got a lot of very raw elements to it. But it’s also got a lot of humor. It’s got a lot of heart. I’ve seen a lot of faith-based movies that really preach to the choir, and this is a movie for everybody. This is really encouraging people to not give up on themselves, to see the good in others and to have hope.” Wahlberg says its a vehicle for people to reignite their faith – something that could fundamentally change the culture.
As someone who has watched and written about faith-based films for a long time, I have a particular appreciation for the uniqueness of what Wahlberg was trying to do with “Father Stu.” On the one hand, it’s not like there haven’t been any religious films that have been edgy or rated R. “First Reformed” and “Silence” were celebrated religious films that were heavily mature. But those films were arthouse films that focused on deconstructing religion. What makes “Father Stu” unique is that it is trying to do what mainstream faith-based films do but in a way that isn’t watered down.
People make faith-based films and watch faith-based films in order to express and relive the reasons they love having a relationship with God. It’s a form of worship, just like when people make and watch romances to express and relive why they love romantic love — and when people make and watch superhero movies to express and relive their love for the heroic ideal.
Wahlberg is motivated by the same desire as faith-based filmmakers to celebrate and pass on the good that God has done for them to others with their filmmaking. It’s that same desire to watch that story that has turned faith-based filmmaking into such a consistently massive success despite consistent bad reviews.
Where these faith-based films typically go wrong — aside from the bad screenwriting and acting — is in their squeamishness at showing the ugliness and messiness of life even as they try to show God redeeming the same ugliness and messiness. They want to show how God redeems people from their brokenness but don’t want to show the brokenness that people are being saved from because it drags their minds back into the brokenness rather than the redemption. This is definitely true of some films — I’m looking at you, “The Wolf of Wall Street.” But Christian films tend to fall into the opposite error, where you can’t see God’s redemption of brokenness because you don’t see enough of the brokenness He’s redeeming people from.
Gibson, who plays Stuart Long’s father in the film, spoke to The Daily Wire and agreed that this is a problem in most faith-based films:
“They keep things pretty sanitized. And that’s not who we are. I mean, hey, we’re here because we’re a bunch of sinners, right? So this film shows you that. It shows that you can come from the depths of all human weakness and kind of be better than that.”
How ‘Father Stu’ succeeds
This is one reason I was happily stunned by “Father Stu.” It’s a movie that succeeds at making the Christian film that other Christian films try to, and it knocks it out of the park in all the ways the other movies consistently fail.
First, the quality is on par with any other Hollywood inspirational drama. The acting, screenwriting, camerawork — all the aspects of filmmaking — range from excellent to at least unobjectionable. The acting is particularly good, with Wahlberg and Gibson completely believable and endlessly entertaining as a dysfunctional father and son. Jackie Weaver is perfectly cast as Stuart Long’s mother, as are most of the other characters in the movie. In fact, I would say that as an inspirational drama, this movie is far better.
Next, “Father Stu” spends a lot of time on Stu before he becomes a Christian and doesn’t shy away from what an immature jerk he was — nor does it shy away from what toxic people his mom and dad are or how broken the family and their relationships are. Once Stu becomes a Christian and determines to join the priesthood, he doesn’t become a more boring and more passive character; he becomes more interesting as he balances his submission to God and the church with his inherent bullheadedness, which bring him into — often righteous — conflict with his parents, his girlfriend, his fellow priests-in-training and the church leadership.
The arguments Stu has with his family and his community never stop no matter how holy he gets and are always incredibly entertaining. Moreover, the closer he gets to God, the more suffering he experiences, and the more suffering experiences, the more he has to reevaluate his beliefs and get deeper answers. Not only that, but the more suffering he experiences, the closer to his family and community he gets, which — because they’ve made their relationships so entertaining — only makes the movie more fun to watch.
This theme that struggle and suffering cause redemption is something that we rarely see depicted so well. Christian stories that show redemption coming when the suffering is over or the suffering is accepted and religious movies that embrace suffering (“Winter Light,” “Faith Based,” “First Reformed,” “Silence”) tend to leave their protagonists with less faith at the end of their stories. But “Father Stu” shows constant struggle and wrestling as the goal of the Christian life and the mechanism of that redemption. The more Stuart Long struggles with God and others, the closer he gets to them.
Mel Gibson elaborated on the importance of this for Stu. “He sort of thanks God for his suffering,” Gibson said. “He’s not praying for an easy life — just the grace to live faithfully through a difficult one … We don’t necessarily win in this life. That’s not what it’s about. Every one of us has got a boulder that we’re dragging around somewhere. We’re all gonna get knocked over. We’ve all got a burden that we have to go through, some more than others, you know? And (Stu) had a heavy one. But man, he was an example of how to triumph over that and weave gold out of it.”
Wahlberg and Gibson’s personal lives helped them tell the story
It’s no wonder why Mark Wahlberg and Mel Gibson both gravitated toward this story. Both have violent and checkered pasts, and both have turned toward their faith as a method of redemption. Those who have forgiven Wahlberg and Gibson for their past will see this as adding another layer of authenticity to the story. Those who have not will see this as another example of two powerful men trying to spin their history into a redemption story.
“We both had troubled pasts,” Wahlberg said, referring to how his story intersects with Stuart Long’s. “He figured it all out, but I’m still working on things.” Elsewhere, Wahlberg elaborated, “When all was said and done, and I was alone, and my friends weren’t there for me anymore, I had my faith, and I had people of faith trying to point me in the right direction. I had real success and experience in focusing my faith and trying to do the right thing, and then getting good results.”
This is also one of the few faith-based films that seems particularly designed to appeal to men — ironically since it is also one of the few faith-based films directed by a woman. As a man, I’ve often found that the women I know have enjoyed Christian movies more than I have. This makes sense; most Christian moviegoing audiences are women, just like most churchgoers in Western churches are women. Therefore, Christian movies are made primarily with Christian women in mind rather than Christian men.
David Murrow pointed out in his book “Why Men Hate Going to Church” that women tend to overwhelmingly like stories that resemble romances, and men tend to overwhelmingly prefer stories that resemble action adventure stories. Men like action films more than women even when the protagonist is a woman. This is why most Western churches, where the congregations are overwhelmingly female, and Christian films, whose audience is overwhelmingly female, tend to portray the Christian story primarily as a romance in which the protagonist desires to be loved but resists the love of our lover — until through the lover’s woo-ing, they discover their lover was their one true love all along.
Also, while most Christian films are made by male directors and feature male protagonists, most of them involve the male protagonist fulfilling married female fantasies, such as husbands apologizing to their wives or girlfriends (“Fireproof,” “American Underdog,” “War Room,” “I Can Only Imagine,” “The Shack”) or being better fathers (“Courageous,” “Christmas Shoes,” “Overcomer,” “I Can Only Imagine,” “War Room”). The average faith-based film is a Christian woman’s fantasy: The closer the male protagonist gets to God, the closer he gets to her ideal man.
But “Father Stu,” while it does follow many of these plot lines, also subverts many of them and merges them with storylines that appeal more to men as well. The movie plays out — particularly in the second half — as an action or sports movie in which Stuart has to overcome external obstacles by conquering inner demons while tossing quips around like a faith-based Tony Stark. In fact, in contrast to most faith-based films, in order to follow God, Stuart has to defy not only the advice of the men in his life — and sometimes church authority — but the women in his life too. This is a common experience for men — including religious men — but it doesn’t often make it into faith-based films.
Will audiences appreciate the film?
Sadly, despite this being perhaps the best example of the faith-based formula, the movie will probably be ignored by faith-based and secular audiences alike. Secular audiences typically don’t come out for anything too heavily religious (e.g., “Calvary,” “Silence,” “First Reformed”), and Christian audiences have a real heavy allergy to swearing, too much veneration of Mary, and portrayals of premarital sex. In probably this movie’s one really bad misstep to me, Stuart Long and his girlfriend have sex before he decides to become a priest. They do show how that deepens the hurt for her when they break up, but they treat it lightly enough that most Christians will probably find it objectionable.
Christians’ relationship with swearing in movies tends to perplex and frustrate outsiders. Many Christians see swearing as part of the ugliness in the world, and seeing that in a movie distracts them from experiencing God’s redemption of the ugliness in the world. To people who aren’t bothered by swearing, this can seem hypocritical, since Christians don’t typically have the same problems with depictions of violence — as “The Passion of The Christ” and “Hacksaw Ridge” can attest — which is far worse than swearing. To this, Christians — surprisingly, rightly — argue that unlike swearing, violence in movies doesn’t lead to imitation.
Personally, I don’t have a problem with swearing in movies like many Christians do, but I do respect why others do. Even so, to me the swearing in this film serves the same purpose of glorifying God that the explicit violence did in “The Passion of The Christ”: It increases the authenticity, which makes seeing God’s glory all the more clear. This is how real people like those depicted in the story that need God’s grace actually talk. Even if Christians don’t see it that way, though, I hope that Christians don’t let that keep them from seeing the movie, since this is exactly the kind of faith-based film we should be encouraging people to make.
That said, I think the fact that Stu and his girlfriend don’t get together is going to be maybe the bigger issue that will keep people away from the movie — even if they don’t admit it. Men won’t like it because it will make them choose between their fantasy of getting the girl and their fantasy of being close to God. Women won’t like it because it means the closer the hero gets to God, the further he gets from the character they identify with. This isn’t theoretical. A gal friend of mine stayed behind from the screener for that very reason.
On the one hand, this is too bad. After all, it’s a true story, and this is the way it really happened. And it’s good for the many single Christians to see that a single life can be a life glorifying to God. However, I do relate to feeling the lack of movies that give a picture of what it looks like to integrate my romantic longings with my spiritual longings. So perhaps that would be a good thing to explore in these filmmakers’ next faith-based project.
That said, there’s a chance that “Father Stu” will do quite well. Mel Gibson — who produced the movie and whose girlfriend directed and wrote it — has consistently been the one guy who’s been able to make R-rated movies that appeal to faith-based audiences (“Passion of The Christ,” “Hacksaw Ridge”), so a Gibson-backed project is a better bet than most. And The Daily Wire has also recently had similar success getting faith-based audiences to support its own R-rated movies, and they have been promoting “Father Stu” as well. Similarly, the popularity of people like Jordan Peterson and a growing “Christian masculinity” movement show there’s a growing interest among men in expressions of Christianity that appeal more to their sensibilities.
Mark Wahlberg told Today he is hopeful that the movie does well and that this opens up further opportunities to make similar films that can give people hope and connect them with their faith:
“If people really recognize the power of the film, then maybe those things will happen, you know? We’ll see. But you know, again, if this movie does a lot and it does a lot of business, it’ll do a lot for people, and then we’ll be able to do a lot with the success of the film to help others.”
I hope that people who constantly say they want great faith-based movies will turn out for “Father Stu.” And I hope that Christians who normally would shy away from movies with rough dialogue will give it a chance. As someone who hungers for quality and authentic representations of faith onscreen that celebrate God rather than simply deconstruct him, I hope that this movie does well and inspires other moviegoers to follow in its footsteps.
– By Joseph Holmes | Holmes is an award-nominated filmmaker and culture critic living in New York City. He is co-host of the podcast “The Overthinkers” and its companion website theoverthinkersjournal.com, where he discusses art, culture and faith with his fellow overthinkers. This review first appeared in ReligionUnplugged. Used with permission.