Father Stu (2022) Movie Review
"Father Stu" is a movie based on the true story of Stu Long, who went from being a boxer to becoming a priest. The film was a passion project for Mark Wahlberg and Mel Gibson, both devout Catholics. However, sometimes passion projects can become problematic because the focus of the story they want to tell is not always the message they want to deliver.
Stu Long was the son of an abusive and mostly absent father, Bill (played by Mel Gibson), and a well-meaning but ineffectual mother, Kathleen (played by Jacki Weaver). The movie briefly shows Stu as a child, trying to win his father's approval by imitating Elvis Presley. We then fast forward to Stu, now played by Wahlberg, as a boxer whose career has left him with more injuries than trophies and more trophies than money. Though he has a lot of determination, it becomes clear that he cannot fight anymore. So, he redirects his single-minded dedication to a new goal: becoming a movie star in Hollywood.
While in Hollywood, Stu meets a beautiful girl named Carmen (played by Teresa Ruiz) who is heavily involved with the Catholic Church. At first, he pretends to be interested in religion to get closer to her, but after a serious motorcycle accident, he realizes that he is called to the priesthood.
One of the pivotal scenes in the movie shows Stu, still studying but not yet ordained, visiting a prison as part of his training. He is accompanied by a fellow seminarian who is in the movie solely for contrast. While Stu is impetuous, confident, and blunt but open-hearted, the other seminarian is studious, sober, and condescending towards Stu. It is not a surprise that Stu is able to connect with the prisoners more easily than the student who is literally holier-than-thou. Unfortunately, this scene, which shows how Father Stu connected with others through sharing his faith, arrives late in the movie and is over quickly. Additionally, his interactions with Monsignor Kelly (played by Malcolm McDowell), the seminary’s rector, are unsatisfying because we never see how their relationship changes after Stu convinces him to let him enroll.
The most important part of Stu's story is how he became a priest, but the movie spends most of its time on how he got there. Even Wahlberg's movie star charisma and irresistible smile cannot make this part of the film work. The challenge in telling a life story in a two-hour movie is selecting the moments that are most consequential and eliminating those that distract from the theme. The script appears to be designed around what would be fun for Gibson and Wahlberg to act, rather than what would move the story forward by illuminating Stu’s spiritual development.
Other scenes clutter the story’s progress and are not as favorable a portrayal of Stu’s values as the movie thinks they are. He is never held accountable for hurting Carmen after she thinks they are going to get married. Another seminarian confesses to Father Stu that he doesn't feel called to the priesthood, but the conversation is presented more as some sort of win for Stu than as a way for him to provide guidance to the person asking for help. We also get glimpses of the real Stu over the credits, which are welcome, but an extra scene with Wahlberg to remind us of Stu’s goofy adventures before getting the call is less welcome.
One of the main issues with "Father Stu" is that it doesn't quite know what it wants to be. Is it a story of redemption, of a man finding his true calling? Is it a character study, exploring the complexities of a flawed but ultimately good-hearted individual? Or is it a biopic, chronicling the ups and downs of a remarkable life? The film tries to be all of these things at once, and as a result, it never quite manages to do any of them justice.
Part of the problem is the pacing. The film rushes through important moments in Stu's life, while lingering too long on others that feel less significant. For example, the scene where Stu meets Carmen is given a lot of screen time, even though it ultimately feels like a detour from the main narrative. Meanwhile, we only get a brief glimpse of Stu as a child, which feels like a missed opportunity to explore his upbringing and how it shaped him.
Additionally, the supporting characters in "Father Stu" are underdeveloped. We don't learn enough about Monsignor Kelly, for instance, to understand why he is so resistant to Stu's desire to become a priest. Similarly, the other seminarian who accompanies Stu to the prison is little more than a caricature of an uptight, judgmental Christian. These characters are important to the story, but they don't get the attention they deserve.
Despite these flaws, there are some bright spots in "Father Stu." Wahlberg gives a committed performance as Stu, conveying both his toughness and his vulnerability. Gibson, too, is effective as Stu's abusive father, even though his performance is at times over-the-top. And there are some genuinely moving moments in the film, such as when Stu connects with the prisoners at the prison or when he finally reconciles with Carmen.
Ultimately, though, "Father Stu" is a missed opportunity. It had the potential to be a powerful story of one man's journey from darkness to light, but instead, it gets bogged down in inconsequential details and fails to fully explore its characters and themes. While it may resonate with devout Catholics who are already familiar with Stu's story, it's unlikely to appeal to a wider audience.
In conclusion, while "Father Stu" has its heart in the right place, it ultimately falls short in its execution. The film is overly concerned with the details of Stu's journey, rather than focusing on the deeper themes and messages that could have made it truly impactful. While Wahlberg and Gibson clearly had a passion for this project, their tunnel vision may have hindered their ability to tell Stu's story in the most effective way possible. As a result, "Father Stu" is a well-intentioned but ultimately forgettable film.
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