The United States is swiftly becoming a society without fathers. In approximately the quarter century or so from the time my parents married to the time I married, the percentage of children living apart from their biological fathers more than doubled — and the situation is worsening, with devastating consequences. Children raised without involved fathers are far more likely to live in poverty; to suffer illness or death; to be involved in delinquency, crime, substance abuse, and imprisonment; to do poorly in school or drop out; and to perpetuate the cycle of fatherlessness with all its consequences.
All kinds of sociological factors contribute to the decline in fatherhood, from the collapse of marriage amid rising rates of divorce, cohabitation and illegitimacy to changing social attitudes that undermine fatherhood and masculinity generally. The makers of Courageous, though, aren’t interested in blaming society. They want to address a clarion call to fathers — to husbands, to men — to buck the trend, to make a heroic commitment, in the teeth of an apathetic or hostile society, to do what is right, loving and honorable by their children and their children’s mothers.
Coming on the heels of Fireproof, Courageous is the fourth film from Sherwood Pictures, and it’s another step forward for the church-based film company. Director Alex Kendrick and his brother Stephen Kendrick, both pastors at Sherwood Baptist Church in Georgia, have co-written and produced all of Sherwood’s films. With each outing, the brothers not only enjoy a bigger budget and better production values, but become more adept in their handling of characters, relationships and the difficult theme underlying all their films, conversion. While the film’s church-based roots and the tendency toward didactic, schematic storytelling are still in evidence, Courageous is their most ambitious and watchable film to date.
Right from the start it’s evident how far the filmmakers have and haven’t come. Courageous opens with an unexpected grabber (part of which is currently on display at the film’s website) that establishes a main character as a competent hero, in the process introducing themes of fatherhood and self-sacrifice by showing rather than telling — all while demonstrating technical chops to boot.
While that opening raises the bar significantly over previous Sherwood productions, in the aftermath, as a pair of cops drive away from the scene, their on-the-nose dialogue underscores the moral as they muse whether they could have matched the heroic paternal devotion just witnessed. A lighter touch would have been more effective — more like a movie and less like a sermon illustration, or more precisely a church-produced drama.
Perhaps that’s not entirely fair. Sherwood Pictures is, after all, a church-based ministry as well as an indie film company. Perhaps a certain “‘Davey and Goliath’ for grown-ups” vibe is simply part of the Kendricks’ milieu, and even what their audience expects. Still, their films aspire to the condition of Hollywood genre pictures, and while they’re not there yet, they’re moving in the right direction.
Where previous Sherwood films focused on a single protagonist and his relationships, Courageous is a loose-knit ensemble piece about five men — four police officers (three Anglo, one African-American) and a Latino construction worker — and their domestic and professional lives. Not all are married, or live with the mothers of their children, but the challenges of fatherhood touch them all in one way or another. Most are also believers. (All Baptist-style Protestants, of course. A hint of Catholicism in the Latino household might have been a nice bit of realistic diversity. Sherwood has reached out to Catholics during development and for marketing and support; can they bring themselves to acknowledge Catholics onscreen?)
At the center of the story is Adam Mitchell (played by director Kendrick), who embodies perhaps the film’s ideal evangelistic target. An experienced officer, a respectable family man and a man of faith, Adam seems to have it all together, but there’s a certain complacency that keeps him from being there entirely for his family. His teenaged son Dylan lives to run, but instead of joining the father-son marathon Adam sternly rags on his son for being out all the time. He fondly watches his daughter dancing in the grass, but selfconsciously turns down her request that he dance with her, telling her he’ll dance with her in his heart.
Ken Bevel, who played the wise black firefighter in Fireproof, plays a wise black cop, a hands-on father who won’t let his teenaged daughter date and scares off baggy-pants-wearing would-be boyfriends. One such young man, growing up without a father in his own life, is initiated into a gang, which serves as a surrogate family to vulnerable youth without strong families of their own. Then there’s Javier (Robert Amaya), a devout Christian who struggles to find work to support his wife and small children, and discovers that the Lord provides in mysterious ways.
Those are only a few of the film’s overlapping plot threads. Mixing metaphors, the filmmakers have bitten off more than they can chew; too many storylines are neglected for too long, leaving you wondering, “But what about the daughter…?” “What about the boy…?” And so on.
Much of the film turns on a domestic crisis that shatters Adam’s complacency, causing him to reevaluate his priorities, his faith and his role as a father. The filmmakers do their best to give the crisis its full weight, though their reach exceeds their grasp, and exposition takes the place of storytelling and character development. (“My emotions are all over the place,” Adam’s wife explains at one point.)
When Adam pulls himself together, he decides to formalize his new commitment to live deliberately with a pledge or resolution. The resolution is this film’s equivalent of Fireproof’s Love Dare: a concrete way that viewers can participate in the movie’s program. At the instigation of one of the wives, the resolution becomes a formal, religiously tinged ceremony in which the fathers solemnly commit themselves to God, honor and family. If such ceremonies will catch on in church circles, I suspect wives will often be instigating forces.
After the pledge, a number of the fathers are tested, with mixed results. One of the key weaknesses in Facing the Giants was that once the struggling protagonist recommitted his life to God, he never doubted or struggled again and quickly turned around every area of his life. There’s some of that here: While Adam’s son Dylan rebuffs his dad’s initial attempts to reach out after the family crisis, there’s little doubt that Adam can turn their relationship around pretty much anytime he wants once he starts giving Dylan what he needs. Many parents of alienated teenagers find it can be difficult to make amends, and long-standing issues have lingering half-lives if they fade at all, but not in a Sherwood film.
On the other hand, the filmmakers also deal for the first time with the theme of backsliding, or at least making a half-hearted commitment and then going back on it. And Adam’s semi-ritual attempt to make up for an earlier paternal failing is possibly the most moving moment in any Sherwood film to date. (That scene also involves the first hint of a real spiritual question mark I can recall in a Sherwood film: Can we ask God to communicate something to our departed loved ones in Heaven?)
If only two of the crucial tests faced by the characters didn’t involve schematically parallel corruption plots. If only Adam faced truly tough consequences for doing the right thing at a fellow officer’s expense, like social pressure from other officers, perhaps even a superior — or, worse, pain and anger from the compromised officer’s family members. I would have liked to see Adam deal with that situation with a little conflicted sorrow rather than square-jawed righteousness. So far, such difficulties and conflicts have little place in a Sherwood production. If you’re on the Lord’s path, the way forward is clear and everything is going your way.
Courageous goes some way toward redressing one of the shortcomings of Fireproof, a strangely sterile marriage-advocacy movie in which the subject of children never came up in connection with the central relationship, a troubled marriage of seven years. Why this couple of seven years were childless, and what relationship if any that might have to their marital troubles, wasn’t even a blip on that movie’s radar. By contrast, Courageous underscores the crucial connection between marriage and children.
At the same time, another crucial relationship plays no real role in the film: Where are the grownups’ own fathers? Some of the characters talk about their fathers — a number of them come from broken homes or were abandoned by their fathers, Javier being a notable exception — and there’s a scene where one character visits the grave of the absentee father he never knew, but none of them have onscreen relationships with a father. Why not show rather than tell how the legacy of one generation affects the next? More pointedly, isn’t how we relate to our aging parents part of how we teach our own children about honoring father and mother?
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.