Father Stu is a mostly endearing, shaggy redemption story

Mark Wahlberg’s six-year passion project about a boxer turned priest with a rare degenerative disease isn’t without hitches, but strong performances and a moving character arc lift the film above typical faith-based fare.

Stuart Long (Mark Wahlberg) in Columbia Pictures' "Father Stu" (Photo: Karen Ballard Copyright: © 2022 CTMG, Inc.)

“Life’s gonna give you a gutful of reasons to be angry,” a mysterious stranger tells Stuart Long (Mark Wahlberg) near a key turning point in his ambivalent quest for meaning. “You only need one to be grateful.”

It’s a pretty healthy-minded aphorism, but Stuart is skeptical. I forget his exact response, but it’s something about that being a terrible ratio. This is a key part of Father Stu’s canny appeal: For at least half the movie, Stu’s caustic irreverence provides a humorous counterweight to the uplifting perspectives of believing characters around him. It might be going too far to say that a spoonful of vinegar helps the sugar go down, but if there’s medicine here, it doesn’t taste like that either.

Based on the unlikely true story of an amateur boxer turned priest who died of a rare degenerative disease, Father Stu leans on Wahlberg’s mischievous charm and buoyant aura of invincibility, with hints of something darker and more fragile beneath the surface. Stuart approaches life in some respects like a pickup artist approaching women, coming on strong without fear of any number of rejections and willing to try as many times as it takes. That’s a more viable strategy in Hollywood, where Stuart’s dalliance with acting ambitions isn’t totally fruitless, than in boxing, where nonmetaphorical blows take a cumulative toll that can’t be ignored forever.

It’s when his eye actually falls on a young woman named Carmen (Teresa Ruiz, Narcos: Mexico) that we see just how unlike a pickup artist Stu is. The confidence and fearlessness are there, but Stu is all heart-on-sleeve sincerity and candor: no feigned disinterest, no backhanded compliments, and, above all, no transactional, short-term thinking. When Carmen tells him that being Catholic for her means no sex before marriage, and then adds that she could never date someone who isn’t baptized, Stu is ready not only to be baptized on the spot, but also to settle in for RCIA.

Stuart’s commitment to Carmen is substantial; his commitment to her Church and her God less so. He learns to say grace before meals in Spanish, but it’s a party trick to impress her pious parents. He gives up alcohol for Lent, but has no particular intention of giving up heavy drinking. He’s willing to make substantial changes, but, as he tells his fretfully concerned mother, Kathleen (Jacki Weaver), it’s all about what it means to Carmen — not to him.

Not every convert has a Damascus Road experience, but when Stuart gets his, it’s far more traumatic than being knocked off a horse. Writer-director Rosalind Ross, in her feature debut, makes strategic use of restrained magical realism here: In states of variously boozy or woozy altered consciousness, Stu has experiences that at least suggest encounters with Jesus and the Virgin Mary. Wisely, the film neither leans into nor echoes these moments; they aren’t presented as evidence of anything, and Stuart’s later spiritual highs and lows are presented naturalistically, bereft of any hint of mystical revelations or consolations.

A dramatic failing of too many faith-based films is presenting conversion either as the climax or as the answer to all the protagonist’s troubles. Harry Cheney, who teaches at Chapman University’s Lawrence and Kristina Dodge College of Film and Media Arts, wrote nearly four decades ago in a Christianity Today film review of a Billy Graham production that “an encounter with Christ should propel the action, not end it.” Very few conversion-themed religious films made in the intervening years satisfy that maxim.

Father Stu is one of the few that does. First, Stuart turns his pit-bull determination toward pursuing a vocation to the priesthood: a choice as incomprehensible to Carmen as it is to Stuart’s irreligious, estranged parents, Kathleen and Bill (Mel Gibson). Kathleen has generally been the neglected voice of reason in her son’s life, while Bill, who lives in a perpetual haze of alcohol and bitterness, seems to have exuded constant disappointment with Stuart since he was a child bouncing around the house in his underwear imitating Elvis. Then there’s Malcolm McDowell’s by-the-book seminary dean, Monsignor Kelly, who has predictable objections to admitting a candidate with Stuart’s checkered background, though compared to Stuart’s parents he’s a pushover.

Then the other shoe drops. The lingering effects of his boxing career and his shattering motorcycle accident were only a prelude to Stuart’s ultimate physical challenge: the onset of a rare degenerative disease, inclusion body myositis. Throughout his story, from roughing up a sleazy Hollywood exec over a lewd quid pro quo to shooting hoops on the seminary basketball court, Stuart’s athletic physique has been part and parcel of his forceful, confident persona. Now his future ability even to elevate the chalice during the consecration at Mass — assuming he makes it to ordination — is in doubt.

Wahlberg compellingly inhabits his character’s struggles, and the screenplay is decently structured even when it sometimes lacks persuasive depth or context. It’s one thing to elide the real Stuart Long’s years exploring his vocation — teaching in a Catholic school, serving with the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal in NYC, and earning a Master’s degree in philosophy at Franciscan University in Steubenville — but nothing we see of Stuart the seminarian suggests graduate-level training in philosophy or any other topic. There’s no sense of his seminary formation and no acknowledgement of his ordination to the transitional diaconate. The plain-spoken righteousness Stuart brings to a prison visit and an early homily was already there in Stuart’s first run-in with Monsignor Kelly arguing for his admission to seminary. So is he growing?

Yes, as his disease progresses. When Stuart tells a congregation that “suffering is the fullest expression of God’s love,” lightly adding that while that may be hard to accept, the fact that it’s coming from a man in a wheelchair should at least impel listeners to consider it, the dearth of his old bravado helps to sell the line. Even so, it’s one of a few lines I would flag theologically. Suffering can unite and conform us to Christ, and God is never nearer to us than when we suffer — but suffering in itself is not an “expression” of God’s love, let alone its “fullest” expression.

Another dubious line: “We aren’t human beings having a spiritual experience, we’re spiritual beings having a human one. If God doesn’t care about this body, why should you?” This borders on Platonic anthropology. All of Catholic anthropology and soteriology — the doctrines of creation and Incarnation, the Paschal Mystery, the sacramental economy, and the resurrection of the body — affirm that as we are not essentially spirits that happen to have bodies; we are a unity of body and soul, both beloved by our Creator, both redeemed by Christ. (Ross, a non-Catholic and Gibson’s romantic partner since 2014, expressed concerns, perhaps not entirely unfounded, about taking on this story. In interviews Wahlberg has credited Boston priest Fr. Jim Flavin, “the most positive influence in my faith and my life,” as advisor on the film. The Boston Archdiocese recently declared Flavin on leave without permission.)

There are other caveats. The film doesn’t really reckon with Stuart’s insensitivity to Carmen, who is expected to forgive but is never offered an apology. I appreciate Bill’s reparative journey in his relationship with Stuart, but I would have liked to see some sign of work in his relationship with Kathleen before a sweet scene at the end. And I could have done without the priggish, prissy seminarian (a character type often described as queer-coded) who is antagonistic toward Stuart and is ultimately revealed not to have a true vocation.

In spite of these issues, Stuart’s spiritual trajectory remains moving, aided by committed performances from Wahlberg and Ruiz as well as a deeply vulnerable turn by Weaver. Wahlberg’s physical transformation from ripped boxer to puffy invalid is striking, but it’s the way he moderates his inner spark without extinguishing it that makes Father Stu the persuasively inspirational figure he finally is.

Related at CWR:
“‘Everything happens for a reason’: Mark Wahlberg and Teresa Ruiz on Father Stu (Apr 12, 2022) by Steven D. Greydanus
“Raising Father Stu: On-screen dad Mel Gibson and real-life dad Bill Long discuss beloved priest”(Apr 12, 2022) by Kathy Schiffer


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About Steven D. Greydanus 26 Articles
Steven D. Greydanus is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle, a permanent deacon in the Catholic Archdiocese of Newark, and the founder of DecentFilms.com. He has degrees in media arts and religious studies. He and his wife Suzanne have seven children.

27 Comments

  1. Thank you, Mr. Greydanus.

    I think your studies for the permanent diaconate have made your film reviews of even greater value to all who read them.

    • Thank you, Charles. I’ve been married for 31 years to a nurse, and I learned early on that medical scenes that are unrealistic, or in which healthcare professionals say or do things that real healthcare professionals would never do, take her right out of the drama.

      I liked Father Stu, but having earned two seminary degrees, one in religious studies and one in theology studying for the diaconate, I have to say the seminary part of Stu’s life didn’t feel especially persuasive to me.

      One thing I didn’t get into in my review is that the priests sometimes talk like a movie idea of a priest rather than a real priest. Msgr. Kelly, explaining his rejection of Stuart’s candidacy, says things like “It is my duty to defend the sanctity of our Church.” That’s a movie line. He later says something like “Sometimes the best way to serve the Lord is to get out of the way.” A more realistic and better line would have been “Sometimes the best way to serve the Lord is in the world as a layperson.” 

  2. Typical Greydanus, big on meaning but no mention at all of the rough language that got it rated R. I applaud Wahlberg all the same, he is making a real attempt in corrupt Hollywood, to lead souls to God, in his own way.
    Getting my Masters at Steubenville, so I already like the guy!

    • Typical Greydanus, big on meaning but no mention at all of the rough language that got it rated R

      Thanks for the reminder about the language, Glenn. I’ll take that as a…compliment? I would rather go “big on meaning” and ignore the language than vice versa! I did mention the language in my interview piece with Wahlberg and Ruiz. I meant to mention it here, but I forgot.

        • Quite right, Shawn.

          For those who haven’t seen the movie, Shawn appears to be referring to a homily Stuart gives while in formation, in which, expressing Jesus’ solidarity with our suffering in his own Passion, he says something about Jesus having “his moment of despair,” or words to that effect.

          Despair in Catholic moral theology is a grave sin, the absence of the theological virtue of hope. Jesus, as God incarnate, could not sin and thus could not despair. This is a word no homilist should use in reference to Jesus.

          That said, attempting to give any homilist’s words the most charitable reading possible, if I heard a homilist in real life talk about Jesus having a “moment of despair,” I would assume the homilist did not mean the sin of despair, but something like “anguish,” “desolation,” “misery,” etc., all of which, in colloquial English usage, can be used interchangeably with “despair” in a sense referring to suffering of spirit rather than a sinful disposition of the will.

  3. Before someone else says it, I’ve just been reminded that the line “We aren’t human beings having a spiritual experience, we’re spiritual beings having a human one” is widely ascribed to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J. I haven’t verified this attribution (if anyone knows the source, I’d be grateful), but no matter who said it, on its face it seems like sub-Christian, Platonic anthropology.

    • “We aren’t human beings having a spiritual experience, we’re spiritual beings having a human one”

      We are human beings with a body and soul and neither aspect of our being is superior to the other. We know that Christ endowed our humanity with great dignity when He was incarnated in the womb of the Virgin. But He didn’t shed His humanity when He ascended into heaven. Paragraph 648 of the CCC states that “The Father’s power raised up Christ his Son and by doing so perfectly introduced His Son’s humanity, including his body, into the Trinity.” Think about it — Christ’s physical body is fully integrated into the Triune Godhead! No greater compliment
      can be given to our human bodies.

  4. Life’s gonna give you a gutful of reasons to be angry, you only need one to be grateful.” so true, and it reminds me of a movie ‘The Light Between Oceans’ about 7 years back or so in which a character says something like “you only have to forgive once, to carry a grudge you have to renew it every day”. Anyone who has seen the film (highly recommended) knows what I’m talking about. I also apologize in advance for not getting the quote correctly, but if you watch it you’ll recognize it.
    I haven’t seen the film yet but intend to. I for one am simply grateful that heavyweights like Gibson and Wahlberger made this film – that means people will HAVE to say something about it, no matter what.

    To conclude – youdidn’taskmebut – The Will Smith affair – Shakespearean in every way, as in – Much Ado About Nothing.

    • Here’s the line, Terence:

      “You only have to forgive once. To resent, you have to do it all day, every day. You have to keep remembering all the bad things.”

      I know because I once blogged about that idea. (It’s a nice idea, but I don’t find it particularly true to life.)

        • Really? You find that after you forgive someone, you never find yourself slipping back (or at least struggling with the temptation to slip back) into your grudge?

          When C.S. Lewis says “To forgive for the moment is not difficult. But to go on forgiving, to forgive the same offence again each time it recurs to the memory — that’s the real tussle,” that doesn’t resonate for you at all?

          I think most people will have experienced what Lewis is talking about.

  5. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but at a time when we finally get a positive, inspiring movie, why use what sounds like what will be a negative review, be a choice? The title of an article sets the tone and in this case, suggests the movie is sub-par. We can’t afford, even for what you may say is “honesty”, to risk people not seeing this movie. Of all the ilk Hollywood has to offer, to suggest this is movie is mediocre, does the movie and people needing encouraging content, a tremendous disservice. My opinion.

    • I can’t tell you how many times I have heard this, about so many faith-based films over the years. I repent of every time I listened, and I thank God for every time I didn’t. I am not here to do PR or sell tickets. I am here to do my best to tell the truth, and perhaps to help some readers see a bit more clearly. If that’s not what you want, there are plenty of places where you can read the other stuff.

      • Thanks — you do owe your readers to be an honest reviewer, not a salesman for anything that tries to claim a certain Catholicity.

  6. I saw early publicity on this movie and am looking forward to seeing it. There are few movies which are not simply entertainment . I like Mark Wahlberg. I also like movies that are based on true stories. Wahlberg was great in a football movie of a few years back called “Invincible”. Totally worth the time to watch. I dont know how fair it is to be critical of a movie for leaving out seminary formation, etc. Most people would not care that much about that aspect of his life and dare I say in a commercial release movie it would be a drag on the story-telling. And realistically you can’t cover EVERY aspect of a person’s life in a movie. In addition, I am dubious most Americans of today’s world would be shocked by cursing. It would not be a reason for me as an adult to reject seeing a movie, and I dont think that this is the sort of movie that children would want to frequent. Most New Yorkers of my acquaintance could stop a sailor linguistically at 60 feet if needed. Thats not a recommendation to do so, just a life reality. I hope this movie does well because I think that the world needs inspirational movies and a little poetic license is not horrible. Last week I pulled out “The Robe” starring Victor Mature and Richard Burton. What a great movie. Inspirational if not biblical. Ditto things like David and Bathsheba with Gregory Peck, or Ben Hur with Charlton Heston. Very much worth watching. I wish Wahlberg well with this project. It sounds like the sort of movie Catholics should try to support.

  7. So the writer director is Wahlberg’s girlfriend who is not Catholic and the priest advisor on the film who is not an active priest now is his best friend and the correct Catholic theology is missing but we’re advised the ‘ emotions’ are what makes the film something to gratify us. As a Catholic I think I’ll pass and I think it is not something that will add any substance to Holy Week.

    • Harsh. Most of us would not qualify for sainthood. A good movie with Jesus as it’s center has the potential power to convert others. A good thing. I dont think you can judge how good a movie is or isnt by looking at the religious faith of the girlfriend of one of the main actors. I have watched two seasons of “The Chosen”online, which is produced by an Evangelical who has done a fabulous job in portraying our Lord and which production series has inspired many real conversions. That he is not Catholic doesnt enter into the situation. One’s religion isnt a necessary qualification to produce a good movie that moves people spiritually toward Jesus. A minor throwaway line in the movie hardly qualifies as heresy and I daresay the average catholic would never know, nor focus on it.Most of us are not well educated in the fine points of theology. The movie is about conversion, not theology. That is something we should all be open to, again and again.

      • I do not plan on seeing it, but your comment is worthwhile — non Catholics can make good Catholic art, non-Christians can make good Christian art, and bad people can make moral art.

    • I’m not sure where you got your information from, but Wahlberg has been married since 2009 and has 4 kids. In 2009, she converted to Catholicism from being a Baptist. The writer-director has been in a relationship with Mel Gibson since 2014

    • Marvin,

      It is the same Fr. Flavin. Church Militant correctly reports that he took a leave of absence from the Boston Archdiocese, first with permission, but later without permission.

  8. I have not yet seen Father Stu. Basically I haven’t seen hardly any Hollywood films in years. I was deeply upset when they failed to give The Passion of The Christ any major Oscar Awards. Finally Hollywood makes a great epic film and its completely snubbed. I am currently in hospital but once I am discharged I plan to go see this Mark Wahlberg film. Even though Father Stu received an “R” Rating The Passion of the Christ also got an “R” Rating. I wish Walhberg the financial success that The Passion of The Christ had. Mel Gibson just of announced a sequel to The Passion of The Christ. I look forward to seeing his next film. I hope Gibson remakes Our Lady of Fatima which is a very timely film to make right now in the very near future.

    • Many years ago, around 30 or so, someone described the Academy Awards as ‘Hollywood’s annual salute to itself”, which to me remains as good a description as possible. Given the fact that the awards show comes during the Lenten season and that many of the women attending seem to be in competition with each other to show as much skin as possible without being arrested, I would not hold my breath waiting for hollywood (small h intentional) to acknowledge this film any more than absolutely necessary.

      I recently proudly counted the 31st consecutive year that I missed the whole thing.

  9. 106 obscenities (including 44 “f” words) and seven strong profanities and other vulgarities that I won’t list. I didn’t count the obscenities…got the number from another Christian website. Somethings not right with that. Although I hear it is a wonderful story of conversion, I just couldn’t get through the foul language and some foul innuendos to get there.

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  1. ‘Father Stu’ – Mark Wahlberg Exclusive Interview – Moviefone TV – Moviefone – CoverStory
  2. Father Stu (2022) - Cast, Photos, Critic Reviews - Magarila

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