MOVIE REVIEW: Courageous
COURAGEOUS-- 4 STARS
For as much as the majority of today's Hollywood tends to be predominantly liberal and democratic (thanks George Clooney, Sean Penn, and Ben Affleck) in loud outspoken ways, there is still a strong independent movie-making conservative contingent that lets their voice be heard. Their movies get the labels of "faith-based" and "Bible-beating" along with the "Christian" adjective before their genre, as in "faith-based Christian drama." But make no mistake, as independent as they are, their quality as films is improving and their box office success is growing.
In a country founded on conservative values, the success of so-called "faith-based" films has become bigger than the niche audience with the "Christian" adjective. Mainstream Hollywood releases like the Chronicles of Narnia series, the many successes of Tyler Perry, the hugely successful The Passion of the Christ from Mel Gibson, and even this year's surprise hits, Soul Surfer and Dolphin Tale, have generated droves of church group screenings and dedicated followings that show the growing broad audience appeal beyond the niche.
The big turning point of public notice was the surprise success of 2008's Fireproof. Following the story of a maritally-challenged and faith-challenged firefighter, it was the third film (after 2003's Flywheel and 2006's Facing the Giants) from Sherwood Pictures, founded by writer-director and southern Baptist pastor Alex Kendrick. Fireproof went on to gross over $33 million as the highest grossing independent film of that year and a runaway success on DVD.
The new release Courageous is the follow-up from Sherwood Pictures and the first of Alex Kendrick's films to get a legitimate full theatrical release. Riding on pre-release buzz from former NFL coach Tony Dungy and debuting at over 1100 theaters, it notched $2 million in ticket pre-sales (beating out Moneyball, The Lion King 3D, and Drive) and went on to a more than respectable fourth place $9 million opening weekend. Most impressive of all, it garnered a rare A+ CinemaScore rating from audience exit polls. Not even Oscar winners get that kind of response.
Courageous follows the fictional story of five Albany, Georgia fathers. Four of those fathers are deputies in the county sheriff's department. They deal with rising crime and dangerous drug dealers on a daily basis, yet, at the end of the day, they somehow go home to be fathers. The natural leader of the group, Adam Mitchell (played by Kendrick himself), doesn't make time for either his young daughter or teenage son. His partner, Shane (Kevin Downes), is a divorced dad sharing partial custody of a son. Veteran transfer and father of three, Nathan Hayes (Ken Bevel) becomes a valiant and stoic example to the rest of the team, including his rookie partner, David (Ben Davies), who doesn't go to church and has a daughter he's never met from a college one-night stand. The fifth father is Javier Martinez (Robert Amaya), a struggling immigrant who's befriended by the group after getting employment through Adam.
When tragedy challenges one of the fathers (I can't say who), Adam crafts a written resolution to be a better father and encourages his friends to join him in taking that oath. Upon doing so, each father takes on challenges, both expected and unexpected, to improving their lives and those of their children. Each have their tough choices and changes to make and learn which ones are worth it and which are not. What impresses the most is that, thanks to a lack of Hollywood stardom on both sides of the camera,
Courageous portrays real blue-collar problems and not manufactured/predictable/cynical Hollywood-style "problems" that never create pertinent uncertainty or jeopardy to their characters. Combined with the suspense of their jobs, the end result of Courageous is a compelling and exciting drama with abundant heart and well-timed humor.
The scores and buzz are not a mirage. Courageous is simply that good, regardless of who or what you believe in. Yes, it's "preachy" if you want to say that. Yes, it's full of and unashamed of its southern Baptist values, but the film doesn't require a "buyer beware" warning label. That's because it is a compelling journey of the self-improvement and integrity of fatherhood accountability and responsibility that a man of any faith or doctrine can relate to and be moved by. Even if you disagree with touchy elements of their religious stance, you have to respect (I know I do) the resolve and determination of the filmmakers to stand up so assertively on the issue of fatherhood and it's a shame cynical Hollywood doesn't make simple and uplifting movies like this anymore.
I don't say this next sentence lightly or with persuasion (I, myself, am not a very good Christian and have no favoritism). Every father in America, and maybe every male adult for that matter, should see this movie. It's that positive of an example to take from. A movie like this lends so well to my movie review hook of life lessons from movies that I had to blow it up with ten. Enjoy and please read until the end!
LESSON #1: MAKE TIME TO BE A FATHER-- Adam learns very early on in Courageous that he's got make time to be a good dad. Like Adam, so many of us find ourselves too distracted by work. It's something he doesn't do a very good job of and regrets until he dedicates to making big changes.
LESSON #2: IT'S HARD TO RESPECT A HYPOCRITE--Saying something and truly living by it are two different levels of respect. We can respect words, but we respect actions better. Don't be the "because I said so" parent of one that fall into "do as I say, not as I do."
LESSON #3: LOSING A FAMILY MEMBER IS LIKE AMPUTATION-- To complete that starting statement, amputations are losses and they heal, but you are never the same afterwards. Yet, people can grow out of them to do amazing things. The same can occur with losing a family member tragically.
LESSON #4: DON'T MESS WITH THE "SNAKE KING"--You'll see. Don't ask about his papas fritas either.
LESSON #5: BEING A PERSON OF INTEGRITY-- The film Courageous examines more fatherhood issues than anything (as you easily can see), but being a person of integrity goes beyond just being a good father. That integrity needs to be carried into your career, your faith, or other life paths. Making tough decisions that you're not going to like tests your integrity. Those decisions arise abundantly in the movie.
LESSON #6: IT'S NEVER TOO LATE TO MAKE A CHANGE IN YOUR LIFE-- As aforementioned, the big turning point for these deputies and fathers was deciding to sign and follow Adam's resolution. As you also read before, each of the participants were at a difference place of their fatherhood. It goes to show that it's never to late to start being a father, in addition to other wholesale changes that life demands of you.
LESSON #7: SET THE STANDARD HIGH FOR YOUR KIDS-- Every wife and every mother will love how the Nathan character sets high standards for when his daughter begins to date as a teenager. More effective than the redneck "shotgun cleaning" father trick, Nathan imposes fair, yet high, standards on his daughter to make good choices, better than the boys that come around. He knows that you can't control them, but you can be responsible for your own.
LESSON #8: THE SACRIFICES A FATHER WILL MAKE FOR HIS CHILDREN-- Definitely before and more so after the characters' written commitment to becoming better fathers, all of them had their individual levels and challenges of sacrifice that they made, not just as parents, but as providing family men. Whether their protective or financial, those too are part of being a good father and continue beyond Lesson #1 about making time.
LESSON #9: PACTS AND RESOLUTIONS ARE EASIER TO MAKE AND MAINTAIN WITH HELP AND FRIENDSHIP-- While it may seem convenient for the movie to have your partners and buddies at work be as spiritually aware as their leader Adam, it is indeed true that it's easier to keep promises and goals with help and support. No man is an island and whether you're talking about a pledge as deep as our characters' here or just something like backup at work or being that nagging friend that gets you to the gym to keep your New Year's resolution, help is necessary and welcome.
LESSON #10: SOCIETY NEEDS MORE FATHERS AND FATHER-FIGURES-- As loud and clear as the movie's southern Baptist point-of-view is, the movie's central message is that society needs more good fathers and father-figures. The often-heard saying of "any fool can father a child, but it takes a real man to be a father" gets a booming answer in Courageous. All of the other lessons culminate and build up to here. A lot of movies talk about the challenges of being a father (including the recent Real Steel just last week) and show the Peter Pan man-child stereotype of the reluctant, but cool "movie dad." Adam Sandler makes a living playing that dope. However, not many Hollywood movies go so far as to walk the walk and show men who have the courage and integrity to take on the challenges and be shining good examples of fathers. Put these gentleman in Courageous right there with Gregory Peck's Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird.