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Father Stu review – renegade-turned-priest Mark Wahlberg blesses Catholic drama

By Leslie Felperin
Mark Wahlberg as Stuart Long
Finding his vocation … Mark Wahlberg as Stuart Long. Photograph: Karen Ballard/AP

In this de facto, if far from de jure, latest iteration of the Ted franchise, Mark Wahlberg once again forms a strange, almost inexplicable bond with a supernatural creature who tests him in a number of painful, problematic ways. However – surprise! – instead of a stuffed teddy bear that’s come to life, this time the agent of chaos is God himself, that omnipresent, omniscient, all-powerful scamp. God first makes the life of Wahlberg’s Stuart Long hard by taking away his little brother via a sudden death when they are little kids, and then giving him a nature that gets him into trouble throughout his life, keeping him from finding a vocation until he finally Finds a Vocation, ie the desire to become a priest.

On the plus side, Stu at least has a number of nice people rooting for him and helping him out, including his feisty mom Kathleen (Jacki Weaver). There’s also a saintly girlfriend named Carmen (Teresa Ruiz) who first leads him to the church, and variously supportive fellow seminary students (Aaron Moten and Cody Fern) who, like most of the supporting cast, deserve canonisation for offering very strong performances as unexpectedly well defined characters. And I am loth to admit this but that also goes for Mel Gibson; if you can separate the dancer from dance, he is an actor capable of bringing a face like a long stretch of ravaged road and a credible impression of pain to the role of Stu’s alcoholic dad Billy. Still, Gibson’s connections to a particularly retrograde, Opus Dei-adjacent branch of the Catholic church represents a problem for a movie that wants us to celebrate the faith’s ability to be more inclusive and accepting of renegades. Is this really what Jesus would have wanted?

There is a nice soundtrack by Dickon Hinchliffe, sometime Tinderstick and composer of several great soundtracks for directors such as Claire Denis, Debra Granik and Maggie Gyllenhaal. What he’s doing working with the likes of Gibson is puzzling but we all have our crosses to bear. There are also good bits in this based-on-a-true-story drama, including the aforementioned performances and a commitment to theology so sincere it’s not afraid to bore an audience with lots of pin-head-fine debates about Godhood. If Gibson weren’t part of the package it might be possible to like it more.

• Father Stu is released on 13 May in cinemas.

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