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This article contains spoilers for the film Father Stu.

Father Stu starring Mark Wahlberg, is a surprise: a small, curious, and compelling film; a memorable story without pretense. The opening third of the movie, which arrives in theaters tomorrow, may deter some viewers—to their loss—from seeing it through, but they should keep watching. Twenty minutes into the film, my wife turned to me—we’re both big fans of Wahlberg—and asked, “Are you enjoying this?” The answer, at least at that point in the movie, was “the jury’s still out.” But as the film progressed, it paid off with an emotional wallop.  

The big question in the film’s early scenes is rather blunt: How did a modest, religion-soaked project like this one attract a cast of such quality, including Mel Gibson, Malcolm McDowell, the wonderful Australian actress Jacki Weaver, Teresa Ruiz, and of course Wahlberg himself? As I watched, the answer became clear: Father Stu is not a perfect film, but it has powerful moments of the same healing, affirmation of life, and triumph despite adversity that made The Fighter (which also starred Wahlberg) and Silver Linings Playbook (which featured Weaver) so memorable. 

The story is based on the life of the late Stuart Long (d. 2014). In the telling, Long (Wahlberg) is an amateur boxer and the adult son of estranged parents (Gibson and Weaver). His father is a bitter, emotionally abusive drunk; his mother a protective neurotic. Forced to retire from the ring for health reasons, but relentlessly upbeat and brash, Long knocks around at low-paying jobs until he takes an interest in a young woman (Ruiz), who has zero reciprocal interest in him. To win her attention, and then her affection, he begins attending her Catholic church. He slowly earns her trust and then her love. But in the process he also starts examining his life for the first time. Eventually, his questions lead him to hear what he believes to be a call to the priesthood. Long enters the seminary, and the dogged simplicity of his character makes him impervious to the skepticism of the rector (McDowell) and fellow students. 

Against the odds, he persists and succeeds—until a fateful pickup match on the seminary’s basketball court. And it’s here that the film takes a 90-degree turn in gravity and never lets go of its audience.

After inexplicably collapsing on the court, Long is diagnosed with a crippling, ALS-like muscular disease. There’s no cure, but Long bears the burden of his illness with a deepening spiritual resilience. As the disease progresses, the rector finally informs him that, since he’ll be unable to discharge the responsibilities of a priest, the diocese must release him from the seminary.

The film’s title gives away the ending. Pressed by Long’s family and supporters, the diocese eventually reconsiders and ordains him. The dignity and goodwill Long brings to his suffering offers a profound witness of Christian faith and transformative love. Yet all of it could be hopelessly schmaltzy were it not for the effectiveness of Wahlberg’s absorbing performance. It’s a gift to sit through a religiously-themed film today that leaves no taste of artificial sweetener in the mouth. And that’s why Father Stu should not be missed.

Francis X. Maier is the 2020-22 senior research associate at Notre Dame’s Center for Citizenship and Constitutional Government, and a senior fellow in Catholic studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. In a previous life, he was a Los Angeles-based story analyst and screenwriter, and an American Film Institute fellow.

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