Producers: Mark Wahlberg, Stephen Levinson and Jordon Foss   Director: Rosalind Ross   Screenplay: Rosalind Ross   Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Mel Gibson, Jacki Weaver, Teresa Ruiz, Aaron Moten, Cody Fern, Malcolm McDowell, Carlos Leal, Jack Kehler, Alain Uy, Tenz McCall, Annet Mahendru, Patricia Belcher,   Niko Nicotera, Tony Amendola, Valente Rodriguez, Colleen Camp, Winter Ave Zoli, and De’Aundre Bonds   Distributor: Sony Entertainment/Columbia Pictures 

Grade: B-

Mark Wahlberg’s fact-based passion project can also be thought of as faith-based, but “Father Stu” doesn’t descend to the worst clichés of that genre.  Its weaknesses are different: it not only rambles rather cursorily through a life filled with twists and turns, but halts frequently to cast its attention on so many ancillary characters that the focus gets jumbled.  Still, its sincerity, along with some strong performances, makes it, despite its raggedness, one of the better inspirational biopics of recent years.

Apart from a few incidental inserts in which young Stuart Long (Tenz McCall) dances in front of his alcoholic, disapproving father Bill (Mel Gibson), the scattershot script by writer-director Rosalind Ross starts with the protagonist (Wahlberg) as an amateur Montana boxer told by a doctor that his latest battering means he should abandon the ring.  He resists the advice despite the urging of his mother Kathleen (Jacki Weaver), but then decides to move to L.A., where his estranged father now lives, to try the acting game.  Affable and smooth-talking, he gets a few commercial gigs, but supports himself working in the meat department of a grocery store.  His reunion with Bill does not go well.

A major change in his life comes when he’s smitten with Carmen (Teresa Ruiz), a beautiful Latina who’s a dedicated volunteer at the parish of Father Garcia (Carlos Leal).  Desperate to get close to her, Stu becomes a volunteer there himself, and even gets baptized, much to his parents’ surprise.  But a greater surprise is to come: just as Carmen expects Stu to propose, he instead—after a vision of the Blessed Virgin, an encounter with a Jesus-like patron at a bar and a near-fatal motorcycle accident—announces his intention to become a priest.

Securing admission to the seminary is no easy matter: Monsignor Kelly (Malcolm McDowell), the rector, is doubtful about his candidacy, and it takes effort to persuade him to give Stu a chance.  All seems to be going reasonably well, with Stu’s ordinary-guy roughness giving him an edge in communicating with “real people,” until he’s struck down with a degenerative disease that leads the diocese to doubt whether he should be ordained.  Of course, the title indicates how that debate turns out, and he becomes a model of suffering to other Christians.

Wahlberg definitely gives his all in playing Long, from the opening boxing sequences through the last-act ones of the man struggling with infirmity, adding additional poundage to his frame to make the performance physically convincing.  He also exhibits a good rapport with his fellow actors; he treats both the ever-dependable Weaver and the less-so Gibson generously, allowing them to shine while not entirely sacrificing his center-stage position.  (It might make you cringe, though, when Gibson’s Bill, hearing of his son’s decision to become a priest, snaps that it’s “like Hitler applying to join the ADL.”)  There’s also a nice interplay with McDowell’s monsignor, a cagily diplomatic sort who is eventually won over.

It also helps that Long is never turned into a plaster saint.  His redemption doesn’t involve a complete turnaround in his attitudes, which certainly include—as we see—something very close to toxic masculinity in his stalking of Carmen and contemptuous treatment of those he considers sexual deviants.  Some might complain that by failing to confront these traits head-on, the film tacitly endorses them, and that by giving Bill a fairly easy road to his redemption it presents a turnaround in life that is thus incomplete and so ethically compromised.  On the other hand, it can be argued that by implying that “conversion” is never perfect, it’s more honest than many such stories.

“Father Stu” also gets sidetracked by spending time on some heavy-handed subplots.  Stu’s friendship with fellow seminarian Ham (Aaron Moten), who also has physical problems to contend with, is obvious but affecting.  On the other hand, the contrast the script draws between him and another seminarian, Jacob (Cody Fern), who’s in the seminary for all the wrong reasons and can’t connect with troubled people the way Stu can, is pretty ham-fisted.  Did we really need a dream sequence in which Stu punches the guy out?

Nonetheless while the film can be unsubtle, it’s not as cringingly so as many other real-life stories of redemption fueled by religious devotion.  It also remains true to its non-fiction roots visually: David Meyer’s production design opts for realism rather than slickness, and the same can be said of Lisa Norcia’s costumes and Jacques Jouffret’s cinematography.  Jeffrey M. Werner’s editing can be blunt and abrupt at times, and Dickon Hinchliffe’s score reaches for an overly inspirational tone.  But those elements aren’t too distracting.

If “Father Stu” were a fiction film, one might dismiss it as melodramatic; the fact that it has roots in a true story mitigates that.  And the inclusion of some footage and photos of the real Longs during the closing credits, as inevitable as it is in such films, helps in this case.  The result is an inspirational film that actually touches your heart a bit.