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Father Stu Sheds Easter Light in Darkness—Even in Hollywood

Posted on Sunday, April 17, 2022
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AMAC Exclusive –  By David P. Deavel

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It’s a shame, really. After Disney made Encanto, its most family-and-religion-friendly kids movie in years, the company is now vowing to push the radical agenda of sex-and-gender in the future. Ironically, however, there is great news. Just as the massive entertainment giant is promising more moral darkness posing as “diversity” for kids, Mark Wahlberg has released a movie for adults going in the exact opposite direction just in time for Easter. Released on April 13, Father Stu is an inspiring, gritty, R-rated movie about how Jesus Christ can completely change the direction of a messy, violent, and unfocused life in unpredictable ways.

Father Stu tells the story of real-life priest Stuart Long, a latter-day Paul of Tarsus thrown from his horse—in this case a motorcycle—and ended up giving his life to spread the message of Christ. Though, to be quite honest, Stu’s conversion is in some ways more remarkable than that of the Apostle, a faithful Pharisee of the Pharisees who loved God but had not come to understand Jesus. Stu was fairly irreligious. Perhaps not an atheist in real life, as Rosalind Ross’s script has his father, Bill (played by Mel Gibson) say. But Stu was still more partier of the partiers than one zealous for God’s name.

A talented Montana kid who lost a brother when young and whose parents had separated, Stu Long was an athlete who got into fights and had a few run-ins with the law. After a brief vision of the boy Stu pretending to be Elvis and being chastised by his father, the film jumps to the adult Stu (played by Wahlberg) and his success as an amateur boxer. After an injury ends the 1985 Montana Golden Gloves champion’s pugilistic career, the young man leaves for Hollywood to be the next John Wayne. Like most would-be actors, he ends up mostly working ordinary jobs.

This first, gritty part of the movie can be hard to take. The profanity, which earned the movie its “R” comes fast and thick, punctuating the inner darkness of the charming, funny, and hard-drinking young man who carries a good deal of baggage from his family situation.  

The mood considerably brightens though when in Hollywood. After falling in love with a beautiful young Mexican-American (Teresa Ruiz) and successfully wooing her despite reservations about his lack of direction and faith, Stu becomes Catholic partly out of desire for more in life but mostly to please her. But a motorcycle accident, which provokes some possibly mystical experiences, spurs him to follow what most see as an extremely unlikely calling to the priesthood.

A good movie could be made just about his conversion and journey to Catholic priesthood, which involved leaving the woman who did so much to bring him to faith. Indeed, this third of the movie shines for some remarkable conversations between Stu and others, especially a parish priest to whom Stu goes for confession and some rather unusual spiritual direction. Much of the dialogue is remarkably authentic here, though occasionally characters representing the Church (a catechist instructing Stu and the seminary rector played by Malcolm McDowell) speak in ways a bit too stereotypically churchy.    

Perhaps the most remarkable scene takes place in a bar where Stuart encounters a mysterious man with long dark hair who challenges him to find “one thing” for which to be grateful—despite the fact that life throws a “gutful of reasons to be angry.” When Stu warns the mysterious figure that his language will get him beaten up, the figure replies that this has already happened. A later search for the man reveals nothing. Is he an angel? Jesus? It’s not quite clear, but Stu knows it means something.

The movie compresses this second part of Stu’s real story, which actually involved a bit more professional, albeit not much Silver Screen, success than depicted, and whose relationship with the young woman was more complicated. Her living faith was only rekindled while the two were cohabiting. And his journey from baptism to seminary actually took seven years and included time teaching in a Catholic school and even an attempt at living as one of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal in New York City before he made it into the seminary. Nevertheless, the compression captures the drama of the profane young man discovering a living relationship with Jesus, whose gift of salvation is both free and demands of him his entire life.

Modern audiences might be shocked enough at the giving up of a sex life—or even a particular woman. But what is accessible only to faith but made utterly plausible is what happened after the resurrected Christ calls Stu to follow him. While studying at the seminary, he was diagnosed with a degenerative disease, similar to Lou Gehrig’s, that had no cure. Give up everything—and then have a slow crucifixion. The development calls to mind the prayer of St. Teresa of Avila: “If this is the way you treat your friends, it’s no wonder you have so few!”

Wahlberg, who gained thirty pounds over three weeks as he filmed Stu’s physical decline, inhabits the increasingly weak Stu’s life perfectly, with intense and angry prayers to the God whom he thinks has called him but does not actually want him. His portrayal of the realization of how God’s appallingly strange mercy works is shown as a slow process that gives the rather unlikely convert’s speech about Christ even more power. If not all of the dialogue is fully understandable due to his take on Stu’s drawl, all of his scenes of testimony and preaching are powerfully written and audibly delivered. One scene of the seminarian Stu speaking to prisoners, who need to know that though God may well be “disappointed” in them, he will “never give up on them,” is particularly powerful.

It is clear that Stu, who ended up being ordained and serving for six years until his death, had an outsize effect on others, not least his parents, played by Gibson and Jacki Weaver, who were reunited thanks to their son and eventually brought to faith. Gibson’s portrayal of Bill Long as a man who learns again both how to father and how to seek the Father from helping his grown, but increasingly physically helpless, son reminds me of how great and natural an actor he is. Weaver has impeccable comic timing and the feel of a mother who is both angry at her losses but soft enough to love and strong enough to do so fiercely.

Father Stu may not be for everyone. Admittedly the language will be tough for some to stomach. But for those who watch, it is a story that is as crazy and glorious as the Easter story itself. Death, despair, and wandering are not the last words. Even in the midst of a profane and violent world, even amid sickness unto death, the last word is that of Christ who knows his way out of a grave—and can lead even the most unlikely figures out with him. Those who’ve struggled with God’s appalling strangeness and those who still struggle will likely be able to see the mercy in this film in which suffering is depicted as an evil that God turns into one of the greatest of gifts—an opportunity for intimacy with him, power to communicate his love, and finally joy.

Wahlberg, whose own life has had both run-ins with the law and long periods of wandering before coming back to faith, clearly identified with Father Stu’s story and was inspired to make a venture of faith in telling it. He financially backed it before Sony picked it up. Now he has indicated that he wants to make more movies in this vein: “I feel like this is starting a new chapter for me in that, now, doing things like this—real substance—can help people,” he told Entertainment Tonight. “I definitely want to focus on making more.”

Maybe others will too. Wahlberg hopes “this movie will open a door for not only myself but for lots of other people in Hollywood to make more meaningful content.” Can anything good come out of the darkness of Hollywood? As Father Stu might himself have answered from the Scriptures, “With God all things are possible.” Father Stu itself shines a light for others to see this truth.  

David P. Deavel is editor of Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture, co-director of the Terrence J. Murphy Institute for Catholic Thought, Law, and Public Policy, and a visiting professor at the University of St. Thomas (MN). He is the co-host of the Deep Down Things podcast.

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Dorothy
Dorothy
2 years ago

You nailed the truth about this movie. It was nothing I had imagined but it IS good. Thank you for your excellent summary of Father Stu.

Gloria
Gloria
2 years ago

It was a very good movie. Hardly deserving of a R rating. I both laughed and cried. The power of God the Holy Spirit on a person’s life is always amazing and worthy of a good cry!

Dorothy
Dorothy
2 years ago

You nailed the truth about this movie. It was nothing I had imagined but it IS good. Thank you for your excellent summary of Father Stu.

Gloria
Gloria
2 years ago

It was a very good movie. Hardly deserving of a R rating. I both laughed and cried. The power of God the Holy Spirit on a person’s life is always amazing and worthy of a good cry!

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