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'Father Stu' movie review: Gritty Mark Wahlberg film shows grace abounds in messy places

'Father Stu'
"Father Stu" is now playing in theaters. |

The Christian life isn’t always a clean-cut one; it’s often messy and complicated — yet even in the face of suffering, grace abounds. 

That’s the theme of “Father Stu,” which hit theaters on April 13. Released by Columbia Pictures, the film stars Mark Wahlberg — who also serves as a producer — alongside Mel Gibson, Teresa Ruiz and Jacki Weaver. 

Based on the life of Stuart Long (Stu), the film opens in the mid-'90s where Stu, (Wahlberg), a wise-cracking, womanizing, rough-around-the-edges former Montana Golden Gloves, sees his boxing career end due to an injury.

Undeterred and naively confident, Stu decides to become an actor and travels to Los Angeles to make this dream a reality. Around this time, Stu’s troubled backstory is revealed: His brother tragically died at a young age, prompting his father, a foul-mouthed truck driver (Gibson) to walk out on Stu and his mother (Weaver). As a result, Stu wants little to do with religion and has a cynical and often immature outlook on life. 

While in LA, Long takes a job as a grocer to make ends meet — and while in the grocery stores, he spots a beautiful woman, Carmen (Ruiz). Instantly smitten, he tracks her down to an unexpected location: A Catholic Church. Carmen’s a Sunday School teacher, and Stu’s lack of faith is a deal-breaker for her. Undeterred, Stu begins to attend church in an attempt to woo Carmen, even though his ignorance regarding church etiquette draws gasps from those around him.

But it’s clear that Stu’s heart is beginning to soften, though he’s still living a somewhat duplicitous life (he plays a devout Christian in front of Carmen’s parents while doing shots at the bar later that night). He survives a tragic motorcycle accident, and while unconscious, has a vision of the Virgin Mary. Convinced his life was spared for a reason, Stu decides to use his life to help others. To the shock of Carmen and his family, Stu declares he’s going to become a priest. 

"I think God saw something in you worth saving," a friend tells him.

The road to the priesthood isn’t exactly easy. Stu faces scrutiny from his peers, who think his bad-boy past disqualifies him from the role. Stu’s parents — especially his agnostic father — are ashamed of his choice, while Carmen doesn’t think he fully understands the magnitude of the role. 

After unexpectedly falling during a basketball game, Stu is given a devastating medical diagnosis: He’s diagnosed with inclusion body myositis, a disease characterized by slowly progressive weakness and wasting of the muscles. Unsure he will be able to carry out priestly duties with such a diagnosis, Stu’s superiors dismiss him. With increasingly limited mobility, Stu goes to live with his father, who begrudgingly cares for his ailing son. 

Though his body is wasting away, Stu’s mind is sharp. Instead of giving into his suffering, he embraces it. He continues to share his faith with those around him, from those incarcerated to his own parents. Carmen, his parents and his friends petition the Catholic Church to reinstate him as a priest, and in a heartwarming final scene, Stu officially becomes “Father Stu” 

“Father Stu” has been described as a “passion project” for Wahlberg, who financed the movie himself. He was drawn to the story of Father Stu, who died in 2014, largely due to the parallels he saw in his own life: A troubled teen, Wahlberg turned his life around largely due to his Catholic faith.

For Wahlberg, “Father Stu” is personal — and through the film, he’s on an undisguised mission to demonstrate that “every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.” He accomplishes this mission without being overly indulgent but giving Stu’s story the dignity it deserves.

When Father Stu embraces Christianity, he doesn’t automatically become a buttoned-up, Scripture-reciting priest. He’s still fast-talking, brutally honest and has a snarky sense of humor. It’s this unlikely representation of Christianity that allows him to minister to tough-to-reach crowds, including, in one of the film’s most touching moments, his own father. 

“Father Stu” is not a faith-based film, something reiterated by both Wahlberg and Gibson; it’s not trying to preach to the choir, nor is it seeking to be the next “Passion of the Christ.” It’s rife with language, including multiple F-bombs, and contains some crude comments that earned it an “R” rating. But the themes of redemption, forgiveness and finding hope through suffering make “Father Stu” one of the most compelling cases of the power of faith seen on the big screen in recent years. 

It certainly isn’t preaching to the choir — but with excellent storytelling, humor and superb acting (particularly from Gibson), the film will likely reach an audience that otherwise would avoid faith-heavy films.

Toward the end of the film, Stu urges those around him not to pray for a comfortable life, but the strength to endure suffering well. At a time when many are desperately seeking hope, Father Stu is evidence that God can use even the most unlikely of vessels to further the kind of hope only found in Christ. 

“Father Stu” is now in theaters nationwide.

Leah M. Klett is a reporter for The Christian Post. She can be reached at: leah.klett@christianpost.com

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