There is something to be said about the personal journeys we take when experiencing art. Media in particular has the tendency to pack a self-fulfilling punch. We’re told when experiencing these stories not to take them too personally. Sure, there are lessons to be found within the subject that can speak volumes to one’s own experience with this absurd thing we call life. But what happens on the screen, or in a painting, or in a book, shouldn’t always be taken as a reflection of one’s life. Instead, seeing ourselves in a story or in a character should be seen as guidance; soft advice on how to get through an obstacle that both we and the on-screen personas have faced or will face at some point.
This is, of course, assuming said tale has a very personal, human experience to share. Sometimes, a story has bigger views than mankind’s in perspective, while some prefer to look at the smaller picture. Father Stu aims to be a little bit of both, but its prayers may have very well fallen on shut ears.
Directed and written by Rosalind Ross and starring Mark Wahlberg, Jacki Weaver, Teresa Ruiz, and, y’know, Mel Gibson, Father Stu is based on the true life story of Stuart Long, an amateur boxer turned small-time actor turned Catholic Priest. Seriously. Over the course of this wild ride, Long was diagnosed with Inclusion-Body Myositis (IBM), a rare disease that causes failure in most of the body’s primary muscles. Long’s story is a powerful one, as he searches for answers to his human suffering and ultimately tries to find God.
Now, this writer’s personal journey with religion isn’t all that applicable to this film. And to its credit, Father Stu doesn’t require you to be a believer in order for you to get something out of it. It does, however, seem to give off the message that if you aren’t, that may be why life isn’t going so well for you.
The shaky and slippery slope of faith-based films has always stemmed from the exclusive nature of their stories. It’s not exactly specific to religious cinema, but it’s harder to convince someone to see a movie like Father Stu if they don’t already subscribe to the same magazine (or Bible?) as you. I don’t think that’s what Wahlberg and Ross set out to do when telling this story, necessarily, but here we are.
Let’s put it this way. Father Stu isn’t really trying to get you to believe in something. It’s more about why people choose to believe in something in the first place.
Truthfully, finding religion is a completely understandable and oftentimes helpful way of getting one’s life on track. We seek purpose and understanding when it comes to our place in the bigger picture, and all of us come to different conclusions about what that place is and how we can get there.
But the idea that simply “finding religion” is supposed to be the key to righting one’s wrongs can be a pretty damaging message nowadays, especially in a world where religion is often used to justify backwards and harmful views. Being a good person is about more than just attending church regularly.
Father Stu isn’t necessarily going for this idea. There is a story here presenting a discussion on common human decency, and Stuart Long himself is an example of someone who uses faith as a stepping stone in truly turning his life around. But this is all eventually tossed aside as a throwaway line and replaced with inauthentic epiphanies and Comedy Central roast dialogue throughout.
In fact, the biggest issue Father Stu suffers from is its disingenuous nature, which can really be traced to its writing. Several times in the film, a moment is supposed to be downright heartbreaking, as characters are getting teary eyed while receiving horrible news. But scenes like these are riddled with insincere dialogue often executed placidly by the actors. Father Stu has plenty of the pieces required to have a genuine conversation about faith in our modern world, even if it does take place in the 80s and 90s. But it chooses instead to be a film that feels like it came out at the beginning of the last decade, a film as dated as the most dated views on religion can probably be at this point in the 21st Century.
Father Stu is now playing in theaters. Watch the full trailer here.