Movie Review: ‘Father Stu’

Review by James Lindorf

Rosalind Ross makes her directorial debut on April 13th with the biopic “Father Stu,” based on the true-life story of boxer-turned-priest Stuart Long. Releasing in the heart of Christianity’s holy week, “Father Stu” ascends to a higher plain than your typical religion-focused dramas but is that enough to save it?

Typically movie reviews focus more on the art and less on the artist. With Mark Wahlberg playing the title character and Mel Gibson as his father, that becomes impossible. The two men have at least three things in common. First, they are both talented actors famous on a global level. Second, they are vocal about their respective faiths, and finally, they each have violent and racist events in their past. Their actions were unbecoming of their religion, and they may be seeking refuge in a film about redemption. After the first few minutes, it is easy to let Ross’ story wash over you, making you forget about the past and letting you enjoy their work.

Wahlberg has often referred to “Father Stu” as a passion project. He has proven that by showing up at select advance screenings and filming a video for those he couldn’t attend. No name may come to mind faster than Mel Gibson when you think of a well-made religion-focused film. That and the fact he and Wahlberg have already played father and son make him an obvious casting choice. Given that writer and director Ross is Gibson’s longtime girlfriend, the role may have been written with him in mind. Ross may fall short of a brilliant debut, but she does fine work here. Partnering with an actor she is so comfortable with, and another who cares deeply for the project may have made the process slightly less daunting.

Wahlberg’s Stuart Long aspires to be a lovable loser. He is a chain-smoking, booze-soaked, amateur boxer, think Rocky at the start of the first film, a womanizer who dreams of stardom. When a doctor advises him to find another career, Stu declares his plan to move his search for fame from the ring to Hollywood. Stu leaves his harsh realist of a mother, played by Jacki Weaver, in Montana and now shares a city with his estranged, hard-drinking, verbally abusive, and all-around SOB father. With parts few and far between, no family he wants to associate with nearby, and a not-so-glamorous job at a supermarket, things aren’t looking great for Stu. That changes when Carmen wanders into his store, and the beautiful Sunday school teacher appears immune to his bad-boy charm. Teresa Ruiz expertly plays Carmen as both Stu’s love interest and conduit to spiritual awakening.

In a real credit to Ross’s screenplay, “Father Stu” manages to be genuinely funny, warm-hearted, and surprisingly dark. Grief and its various coping mechanisms play a vital role in “Father Stu.” As easy as it could be to be annoyed by or hate any Long family member, you can’t help but be a little empathetic. Tragedy has a way of changing people, changing families. The Longs were never going to be the Bradys, the Waltons, or the Winslows, and we never know what could have been, but Ross does offer a glimpse here and there.

The weakest part of the film comes during the act changes. The breaks are so sharp that it gives the impression of something designed for television and then edited into a movie. Each of the film’s three main lines could have been their very own movie, proof of the truly remarkable life led by Long. If Ross and editor Jeffrey M. Werner, who is mainly known for his work on TV, smoothed those edges and shortened the run time by a few minutes, Ross would be in the running for best debut films of the last X number of years. My first suggestion for a scene to cut is the way to on the nose motorcycle Jesus.

“Father Stu” dives deep into the difficulty of faith in a way standard religious fare wouldn’t dare. “Father Stu” doesn’t break new ground in its genre and is carried by outstanding performances, especially from Wahlberg. Reportedly the notoriously fit actor packed on 30 pounds for the physical transformation Stu undergoes later in his life. The physical commitment on top of the emotional connection makes this a top 5 performance of Wahlberg’s career and arguably the best. If you can ignore the artists, “Father Stu” is a 4.5 out of 5 and should dominate box offices on Easter weekend.

Rating: R
Genre: Drama
Original Language: English
Director: Rosalind Ross
Producer: Mark Wahlberg, Stephen Levinson, Jordon Foss
Writer: Rosalind Ross
Release Date: April 13th, 2022 Wide
Runtime: 2h 4m
Distributor: Sony Pictures

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