Father Stu

I am not a fan of “Christian” movies. It is almost always bad (in multiple senses) when the word “Christian” is used as an adjective, rather than a noun. Very often, in fact, to be theologically accurate, the noun and the adjective likely should be reversed (e.g., American Christians, rather than Christian Americans). Probably it is possible to use “Christian” as an adjective (e.g., Christian theology, in comparison to Muslim or Jewish theology), but most often the noun is primary, and the adjective modifies the noun. So what is primary? Our earthly citizenship, or our citizenship that is from heaven?

What gets promoted as Christian movies, while certainly becoming more cinematically sophisticated in recent years, are often simplistic, doctrinally suspect, and full of clichés about both Christians and unbelievers. So when I saw the trailer for Father Stu (2022; available at Redbox or for rent on streaming services), it seemed like it might be a substantial challenge to what passes for a movie with a religious or Christian subject. And while it is, for me, head-and-shoulders above the movies marketed primarily to American Evangelicals, it falls short of profound.

Father Stu is based on the story of Stuart Long, a former amateur boxer who became a priest, and suffered from a debilitating muscle ailment that caused his death at only 50 years old. There are brilliant moments of acting from a remarkable cast. Mark Wahlberg is good; Mel Gibson is well-cast (and probably easily, since his girlfriend is the writer/director). Jacki Weaver as Stu’s mother and Teresa Ruiz as Carmen, Stu’s love interest, are excellent. Malcolm McDowell as Monsignor Kelly is impressive as always. In addition, some of the other actors with smaller parts have impressive resumés: Annet Mahendru (excellent in The Americans and also Mel Gibson’s daughter-in-law), Patricia Belcher, and Winter Ave Zoli all make appearances.

The story itself is a recognizable Hollywood adaptation of a “true story”: a character who faces ups and downs, falls in love, has everything taken away, and then finds redemption in a happy ending. The plot is nothing new, even though presumably people’s lives do not usually fit Hollywood narratives. Even so, that the film was made and distributed widely is an interesting piece of commentary on the state of filmmaking. It is a story about a Roman Catholic priest, and yet not a damning exposé. But according to imdb.com and this article, the project was in fact turned down by several studios, and Mark Wahlberg was forced to pour millions of his own money into funding it himself.

One of the more interesting tensions, at least for what normally gets marketed to Christian audiences (whether that’s a positive use of the adjective, I’ll leave to you), is that it is rated R. While Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ was rated R for blood, violence, and gore, Father Stu is rated R for language. It definitely serves to make more authentic both Stu’s pre-religious life and the relationships he has with his parents. Whether most Christians will see an R-rated movie that is not about the life of Christ is a question for the box office and rental numbers.

Father Stu does best when it is dealing with the family dynamics and the character arcs. It falls short, however, when it starts doing theology. I think it is probably mostly on target when it touches Roman Catholic theology of Mary, or the priesthood, or penance, or good works (although I leave that to the theologians from that church). Obviously, Lutherans are going to have some issues with some of that. But it gets worse in a couple places. Stu’s fellow seminarian, Ham (Aaron Moten), whose name is the subject of a humorous exchange in the second act, tells him that God saved him because He saw something worth saving; and now Stu just has to figure out what he can give back. I don’t know if Roman Catholics believe that God saves because of what He sees in people, but Lutherans are firmly opposed to that view. God saves because of Christ, and only because of Christ.

But the worse line comes when Stu is talking to Monsignor Kelly about his increasing physical limitations and says that we are not earthly people having a spiritual experience but spiritual people having an earthly experience. So, Stu says, the body doesn’t matter to God, and it shouldn’t matter to the Church. This is bad theology, and in some ways it is contradicted by the value placed by Stu on suffering in the body. We are created as people who are both body and soul, and we are redeemed as body-and-soul people. I suspect this is not a major strain within Roman Catholic theology, but, again, I’ll leave that to their theologians.

Ultimately, there are a lot of spiritual, religious, and Christianese clichés in this movie, and they drag it down a bit for me. But if you’re looking for an inspirational, true-ish story about a man whose life was turned around and is probably largely unknown, Father Stu is not horrible for that. It is certainly more complex and authentic and better-acted than most movies marketed as “Christian.” That cannot quite redeem it (no pun intended) for me fully as a film, but it is worth renting.

Look for a new episode of Saints and Cinema focused on Father Stu and some of its themes, coming soon.