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Stuart Long, played by Mark Wahlberg, with his father Bill, played by Mel Gibson, in Father Stu.Karen Ballard/Sony Pictures

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Father Stu

Written and directed by Rosalind Ross

Starring Mark Wahlberg, Mel Gibson and Jacki Weaver

Classification 14A; 122 minutes

Opens in theatres April 15

To judge by its poster, Father Stu doesn’t seem like a movie that actually exists. Featuring a juxtaposition of two images – the first a stark mugshot of star Mark Wahlberg posing with a jailhouse placard, the second a beatific picture of the actor in the garb of a priest – Father Stu’s marketing materials make it seem like a faux movie, a parody. But after being invited to a press screening the other week, I can confirm that Father Stu is indeed a real-deal film – although it probably shouldn’t be.

Based on the true story of Father Stuart Long, a bad boy turned priest, Father Stu was first announced in 2016. At the time, Wahlberg said he was working on the story with regular collaborator David O. Russell (Three Kings, The Fighter, I Heart Huckabees). Somehow in the span of five years, though, the film was instead written and directed by a relatively unknown 31-year-old filmmaker named Rosalind Ross. Does her name sound familiar? If so, likely it’s because she is the girlfriend of Mel Gibson, who also stars here as Father Stu’s father, Bill.

Father Stu is Wahlberg’s first foray into the highly lucrative and increasingly mainstream world of faith-based films: slick, decently budgeted dramas that are vaguely Christian in their underpinnings, with characters typically finding peace through Jesus.

Father Stu sends the message that anyone can look within themselves to change for the better and seek forgiveness. But if this film is Wahlberg and Gibson’s idea of making such an effort, then maybe it’s better to do nothing at all.Karen Ballard /Sony Pictures

The story itself goes as follows: Stuart Long is an aging amateur boxer, constantly getting arrested for no reason, who is told he can no longer fight because of years of sustained injuries. He decides to move from his home in Missouri, leaving behind his mother (Jacki Weaver), to become an actor in Los Angeles. Stu can’t get a job outside of commercial work, and while at his day job he spots Carmen, a nice Catholic girl who has no general personality outside of being Catholic and a girl. This leads Stu not only to convert to Catholicism, but to become a priest. Throughout this journey, he reconnects with his deadbeat father, Bill.

Does that sound boring? That’s because it is, or at least that’s how this wholly unremarkable film depicts Long’s journey. This despite the film positioning itself as a clear vanity project for Wahlberg, who is a true movie star – which makes the experience of watching Father Stu extremely jarring. Ross’s formulaic direction could have been delivered by a robot or algorithm and nobody would have noticed. Watching Father Stu feels like enduring a B-movie that would never see the inside of a cinema (the film is playing exclusively in theatres) and be instead relegated to the bottom of a streaming or VOD queue – only it holds the star power and charisma of Wahlberg.

What’s interesting about Father Stu, though, is that a Wahlberg/Gibson feature is being pushed as a redemption story. Stuart is portrayed as a violent and dishonest man, but through God and faith, he is ultimately redeemed. An interesting choice considering the personal histories of its stars. Wahlberg once assaulted a stranger. Gibson has a long history of being vocally racist and anti-Semitic. The film sends the message that anyone can look within themselves to change for the better and seek forgiveness. But if Father Stu is Wahlberg and Gibson’s idea of making such an effort, then maybe it’s better to do nothing at all.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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